Library Issues

Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan.
Contributing Editors: Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Sarah Pritchard, Smith College; Mark Sandler, University of Michigan

Vol. 17, No. 5 May 1997

Free Books: Are They Worth What They Cost?

by Dennis W. Dickinson

Mountain goats always travel in a single file; at least the one I saw did." John Dimling, President and CEO of Nielsen Media Research uses this patently silly utterance to illustrate how people often draw conclusions based on incomplete evidence and invalid reasoning. Dimling believes that individuals are especially prone to such illogic when it supports a particularly desirable or alluring conclusion; a situation that he characterizes as "the pull of the conjuring image."

Academic administrators fall victim to the "conjuring image" when they view gifts-in-kind as a way to make up for the lack of book and periodical funds and build library collections on the cheap. Such thinking, however, is based on faulty logic, fallacious assumptions, a profound misunderstanding of the economics involved, and, in some cases, parochial interests.

Unsolicited gifts-in-kind, in fact, are not free, but represent a significant, continuing and expensive problem for almost all academic libraries. Such gifts occasionally do prove valuable, of course; but the vast majority are, at best, of only marginal utility. They comprise materials that libraries do not want, cannot use, and that are encumbered by unacceptable conditions. There is consensus among those who have studied the matter that most unsolicited gifts-in-kind are not useful because they are old, in poor condition, duplicate, out-of-scope for the library, or otherwise inappropriate. Paradoxically, gifts-in-kind are regularly accepted by libraries, and most librarians believe that acceptance of them is inevitable.

Academic libraries, especially small college libraries, seek to develop working collections of materials that are useful and will be used. Most gifts-in-kind emphatically do not contribute to this latter goal; often they actually detract from it.


The Hidden Costs of Gifts-in-Kind

In the first instance, gifts must be kept separate from the normal acquisitions stream and require special handling and processing procedures. Merely by accepting gifts, libraries incur substantial costs for staff time, building space, etc. Some libraries have found the problem of gifts-in-kind important, time-consuming and expensive enough to justify development of an expert system to reduce processing costs. Moreover, the Tax Reform Act of 1984 imposed additional record keeping and reporting requirements on libraries that accept some in-kind gifts. These become especially onerous if the library elects to dispose of such gifts within two years of the date of receipt. Gifts-in-kind are costly to handle, and these costs must be considered when accepting such gifts. In actual practice, however, they are routinely ignored.

The Disposal Problem

One of the most troublesome aspects and often overlooked costs of unsolicited gifts-in-kind is disposal of the many unwanted items that they inevitably contain. There are only four ways to get rid of unwanted library materials: they can be thrown away, given away, exchanged, or sold. None of these possibilities, however, eradicate the deleterious effects of accepting a donation of marginal utility in the first place; and all have their own specific disadvantages.

In one survey, over 70 percent of the librarians responding said that the problems of disposal outweighed the benefits received from gifts-in kind, and that available options for disposal were costly, time consuming, and labor intensive. Nearly 65 percent of the respondents cited lack of storage space for holding unwanted donations as a major problem that limited disposal options.1 The problems with disposing of large numbers of unwanted volumes have become so vexing that some libraries have stopped accepting gifts-in-kind entirely, and more are actively considering the option.

Destroying or throwing away gift materials is fraught with peril. Librarians do so discreetly, even surreptitiously. There are many cautionary tales about people who retrieve materials from the trash and bring them back to the library, either explaining that the books must have been thrown out by mistake, or in high dudgeon because the library is purposely destroying the history of western civilization, among other heinous crimes against humanity - or both ad seriatim.

I once was told by a college librarian in all apparent seriousness that when he had books to dispose of, he brought his own truck to the library at 5 A.M. on a Saturday, loaded the truck himself, and drove to a landfill two counties away to dump them. Such is the wrath of serious, but misguided, bibliophiles who abound on college and university campuses. In a survey of library practices regarding gifts-in-kind, only about one third of the libraries responding would even admit that destroying unwanted gifts was an option they might exercise.2

Selling unwanted items may appear on its face to be an attractive option. In fact, many academic libraries do sell or attempt to sell unwanted gifts; but they do not consider the proceeds of such sales to be a source of income. The reason for this is obvious, since any honest valuation of a sale must be based on the proceeds of the sale net of costs for handling, storage, sorting, listing, advertising, etc., associated with the sale. Although there is precious little data on which to base this bookkeeping, there can be no doubt that book sales, almost always, are a net loss for the library.

One library estimated that it received about four dollars for every hour of work that went into a sale.3 It doesn't take a CPA to realize that, even if every one involved is making only minimum wage, a library would be money ahead by simply recycling the books. If instead one substitutes real wages, then the book sale is patently a black hole for money. No wonder then that some librarians refer those bearing gifts-in-kind directly to used book dealers in order to avoid the work and expense of acting as a transfer agent/recycling center.

Exchanging books with other libraries has all of the disadvantages of selling them, but the costs are even higher because they inevitably involve preparing detailed lists for circulation among potential takers and searching lists of offerings, as well as mailing and shipping costs. Libraries voted with their feet on this issue when the United States Book Exchange, founded to facilitate inter-library exchanges, went bankrupt in 1989.

Finally, giving books away carries some of the disadvantages of destroying them and most of the same costs as attempting to sell them, but with no possibility whatsoever of any cost recovery.

Worse yet, the nature of gifts-in-kind in general ensures that all of the last three methods, i.e.,sale, exchange, or re-gifting, will leave a sizable residue of materials that no one wants under any circumstances, and which must be destroyed; thereby exposing the library to a kind of double jeopardy.

The Obsolescence Factor

Compounding the problems outlined above is the fact that gifts added to the collection are, for the most part, little used when compared to materials that are selected and purchased by the library. One study of gifts in a medium-sized academic library found that gift materials are much less likely to be used than materials purchased by the library.4 This should come as no surprise to librarians, since there is overwhelming evidence that use of library materials varies as an inverse function of age. That is, decreased use over time, i.e., "obsolescence," or "decay," is a normal, predictable, and well-known characteristic of library holdings. Studies have shown that materials that are 1- or 2-years old are 4 to 6 times as likely to be used as those 16- to 20-years old.5 Couple that with the fact that most gifts are more than 20-years old when they are received6 and you have a pretty fair indication of the relative utility of those gifts-in-kind actually added to a library's collection.

Moreover, because age and lack of use inevitably figure heavily in any decision about whether to withdraw a book from the collection, the ultimate irony is that a very large proportion of books added as gifts-in-kind are, or at least should be, weeded out of the collection after sitting unused on a shelf for a number of years. Thus, they extract yet another substantial cost from the library that is nearly as great as the cost of incorporating them into the collection in the first place.

All that Glitters . . .

At this point, it would be fair to ask, "If all of this is true, why on earth do librarians accept any gifts-in-kind at all?" The answer to this reasonable question is not simple. As pointed out above, some libraries, in order to avoid disposal problems or as a way of coping with shrinking budgets, do not.

Some authors explain the tendency to accept unwanted and inappropriate gifts by reference to the socialization process that, they believe, teaches us from childhood to accept all gifts graciously. More often, however, explanations for accepting marginal gifts are pragmatic, i.e., refusing a gift might alienate the donor. In any case, only 7 percent of librarians responding to one large survey would refuse an inappropriate gift offered to their library.7

There is probably some truth in both of the above explanations; however, the real engine of this folly lies elsewhere. First of all, anyone who has read this far already has a better and more detailed grasp of the economics of gifts-in-kind than most working librarians, who still believe, or at least operate as if, gifts-in-kind are actually free. They will often add materials knowing that they are of marginal utility just because they are ostensibly free. In their defense, the subject of gifts-in-kind is not treated by most library schools, rarely appears in conference agendas, and the literature on the subject is slight, diffuse, dispersed and, in large part, difficult to find. Librarians, however, must daily confront the consequences of accepting gifts-in-kind, i.e., overstuffed and cluttered storage areas, processing backlogs, disposal problems, shelves overflowing with unused materials added because they were "free," weeding gifts-in-kind that were added "just in case" they might be needed but predictably never were; and, finally, deferred disposal problems. Thus, most librarians have at least an intuitive awareness that gifts-in-kind create problems for the library, and, based on this, a healthy reluctance to accept at least the most egregiously inappropriate gifts.

Undue Influence

Few libraries actively solicit gifts-in-kind; and left to their own devices librarians probably would reject substantially more of them. In fact, many gift and exchange departments have been downsized or eliminated, and libraries have become much more selective in accepting gifts in recent years. There is, however, a powerful countervailing force in most academic institutions that overrides the experience, intuition, and practical knowledge of librarians. The college or university development office and others who raise funds for the institution may view such gifts in an entirely different and positive light; and they frequently preempt the library's decision making authority regarding gifts-in-kind.

"Few libraries actively solicit gifts-in-kind; and left to their own devices librarians probably would reject substantially more of them....
There is, however, a powerful counter-vailing force in most academic institutions....
The college or university development office and others who raise funds for the institution may view such gifts in an entirely different and positive light."

There is nothing underhanded or malicious about their actions. Their mission is, simply put, to raise money for the institution; and they are only doing their job. They merely understand virtually nothing about the costs to libraries associated with gifts-in-kind, and themselves receive undiluted benefit from the acceptance of such material. A gift-in-kind of books is almost always a by-product of the pursuit of other gifts to the institution, so there is no incremental cost attached to it from the point of view of the fund raiser. It also can be converted to a cash equivalent for accounting purposes by assigning a nominal dollar value to each volume and multiplying that by the number of volumes. The product can be added to the amount of "money" raised by the institution, and goes toward meeting whatever goals have been set. From the perspective of those engaged in fund-raising, then, gifts-in-kind are found money.

While these folks thus receive some direct and immediate benefit from such gifts; their primary rationale for accepting books as gifts-in-kind appears to be a belief that accepting such gifts can lead to bigger and better gifts in the future, i.e., cash and other valuable considerations. Since, from their perspective, there is no down side to accepting such gifts, and they receive real if modest immediate benefit from doing so, and believe (hope) that they may reap much larger benefits in the future, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by encouraging such gifts. And they do.

In so doing, however, they make it difficult, if not impossible, for the library to then refuse the gift, since the donor usually has been given the impression that it is a done deal by the time the library learns of it. In one study 92 percent of the libraries indicated that they were asked to accept donations that they did not need.8

The Myth of the Conditioned Response

Moreover, the premise on which such gifts are usually accepted is probably specious. In the first instance, donor motives for giving books to a library are probably quite different from those of someone who makes a significant cash gift to the institution. That is, most donors of gifts-in-kind to libraries don't want and have no use for the materials they donate. They are merely looking for an opportunity to offload stuff they believe is "too good to throw away." Few people give away money for the same reason.

Despite that, there is no shortage of stories proffered as anecdotal evidence for the belief that accepting gifts-in-kind leads to bigger and better things; and some of these are actually true. Most, alas, are apocryphal, and represent a sub-species of urban myth. In any case, there seems to be no reliable, systematic, empirical evidence for the premise that accepting unwanted gifts-in-kind leads to more and more useful, i.e., cash, gifts from the same donor. In most cases such gifts, if any, do not come close to offsetting the substantial costs involved in accepting the numerous gifts-in-kind that come to nothing but a disposal problem for the library. If that premise is false, then the institution as a whole, and the library in particular, are big time losers in this seeming crapshoot. That so many accept the proposition despite the paucity of evidence for it represents the triumph of hope over experience among those many among us who persist in the belief that "data" is the plural of "anecdote."

Few libraries, even large libraries, still have separate gift and exchange departments. Instead, these responsibilities have been absorbed by other departments of the library. One of the unfortunate consequences of the trend toward elimination of gift and exchange departments in libraries is that the true costs of dealing with gifts are buried.

One modest proposal that would again break-out these costs and simultaneously dampen the enthusiasm for accepting books as gifts-in-kind, and impose the cost of doing so on the primary beneficiary, might be for the library to levy a charge equal to the total cost of processing each book received as a gift directly against the budget of the development office. The funds generated could then be used to hire additional library staff to process these materials so that the availability of other, more useful library materials is not adversely affected. If that is seen as too draconian, then at the very least, the library should be consulted as soon as books are offered as gifts, and should always have the option of refusing the gift in whole or in part.

Librarians are disadvantaged in resisting pressure to accept unsolicited gifts-in-kind, first of all by their general lack of knowledge of the economics involved; and secondly, but not secondarily, by the fact that the fund raisers' arguments prevail less on the basis of hard evidence to support them, than because they hold out the tantalizing carrot of riches untold to follow if the gift-in-kind is accepted and raise the stick of future golden opportunities lost if it is not. Librarians, if they buy this argument, may accept gifts that are of no use to the library at all, in hopes of receiving more valuable donations in the future.

Disposition of unwanted gifts-in-kind is, however, a potentially devastating public relations problem. The donor may have been given an unrealistic notion of the value of the gift and, therefore, fail to understand the library's need to dispose of inappropriate material, particularly when that means disposing of the entire gift as it often does.

Summary and Conclusion

Unsolicited gifts-in-kind pose significant problems for and offer few benefits to most academic libraries. The actual costs of handling, storing, processing and disposing of such gifts are substantial; and almost always exceed the benefit derived, if any. They are also potentially dicey donor relations problems.

There is little published information on the economics of gifts-in-kind to libraries, and librarians, for the most part, are not well acquainted with even such information as is available. Fundraisers in the development office usually know even less. Often, therefore, librarians are pressured to accept gifts-in-kind that they neither want nor need in order to serve the "greater good" of institutional fund raising. Because the library bears the entire cost of such gifts and derives little or no benefit from them, library control over the decision to accept or reject gifts-in-kind is absolutely essential since it is a management issue that can adversely affect the entire library.—Dennis Dickinson is College Librarian, Beloit College Library, Beloit, WI


1Cooper, Ellen R. "Options for the Disposal of Unwanted Donations." Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, 78, 4 (October 1990), 388.

2Robinson, William C. "Gift Materials in Tennessee Academic & Public Libraries." Tennessee Librarian, 42, (Spring 1990), 16.

3Rutledge, Jane. "Used Book Sales: Some Practical Advice." The U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian, No. 55, (1985), 3.

4Diodato, Louise W. & Virgil P. Diodato. "The Use of Gifts in a Medium Sized Academic Library." Collection Management (New York: Haworth Press, 1983).

5Bertland, Linda. "Circulation Analysis as a Tool for Collection Development." School Library Media Quarterly, 19, (Winter 1991), 93; Ettelt, Harold. "New Books & Those Previously Used, Lead the Band, by a Lot." ERIC Document #ED286526, (1987), 6; Lancaster, F.W. "Obsolescence, Weeding & the Utilization of Space" Wilson Library Bulletin, 62, 9 (May 1988), 48.

6Diodato & Diodato, "Use of Gifts, 67.

7Robinson, "Gift Materials," 21.

8Robinson, "Gift Materials," 13.

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Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #300, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (313) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 17, no. 5. ©1997 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $44/one year; $74/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $18 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 313-662-4450; E-mail: Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus.

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