I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about library donations. Mainly, about how very often, the very things you want the most... are not what is actually donated. Of course, everyone knows this about book donations. Librarians would gladly welcome a box full of new NYT bestsellers, or a bag full of the latest season of popular TV shows on DVD. Instead what we usually get is a dusty, musty box from someone's garage - plenty of items that are yellowed, torn covers, missing pages, but still "perfectly good." In book resale parlance, these are called "reading copies" - still readable, but in terrible shape and basically with a very low to nonexistent monetary value. There are a few gems, to be sure, but mainly we take these donations for the "feel good" factor. Many patrons will become incensed if you refuse a donation! What is wrong with you? These books are "perfectly good!" You're a library, aren't you? Why aren't you hopping up and down with excitement over my box of dusty, mildewed books? So, to save a fight, we just take everything that's offered. Rightly, or wrongly, the patron walks away feeling happy that they've accomplished a "good deed" and we fish out a few nice items and (quietly) recycle the rest.
Now that I'm the branch manager of a large suburban public library, I've been coming across donations of a different sort. Our library is located on a beautiful set of grounds - admittedly, not terribly well-cared for, but there is a reading garden, a small wooded area, and a meditation maze walking path, along with an outdoor story circle and several benches dotted about. Overall, it's a lovely space, and I'm very lucky to work here. We get a lot of "offers" for donations for the park! In the past year, people have offered up:
- More benches
- Evergreen bushes
- A new garden installation
- Fresh bulb plantings
- Several truck loads of wood chips
- Even more benches
- More public art sculptures
- A mural
- A climbing playground structure
- Grass re-seeding
- Recycled tires
- Yet more benches
- Pinwheels and other yard decor for the lawn
- More recycled tires
- A Little Free Library box
Most of the things on this list are not our top priority, but we have accepted a few of them. Yes, to the rosebushes and the bulbs! (Even though they died out soon after being planted.) Yes, to the wood chips. (Even though it was, perhaps, one truckload more wood chips than we really would have preferred.)
But, I find myself saying, "no" to a lot of our garden donations. No to the public art (too large for our space), no to the evergreens (too expensive to install, no way to upkeep them), no to the benches (we already have 27,) no to the playground structure (too expensive to install, possible safety liability.) No to the load of tires (we already have more than enough), no to the Little Free Library (competes with our used bookstore sales, and sadly, people tend to fill up LFL's with junk anyway.)
Wow, if I thought patrons got huffy over books being turned away, I had no idea that people would get so upset over our refusal to take their garden offerings. "Well, what am I supposed to do with all these old tires??" Uh, I dunno. Not make them our problem?
I'm walking a fine line between having an involved, engaged community, who are contributing to make our shared space wonderful, but at the same time, not being the place where unwanted garbage is dumped (while people pretend it's a wonderful gift.) Happily, most patrons eventually see sense with a little talking to.
At first blush, the idea of having our lawn full of pinwheels sounded whimsical and fun. However, when the patron hedged that the pinwheels were coming from their garden, and they were a little worn out, but still "perfectly good," I decided to follow-up with a gentle reference interview.
"So why are you taking the pinwheels out of your garden?"
"Well, they are a little worn out."
"Do you think I could see a few of them, before you move ahead with installing them?"
And here, the patron brought me a box of the most tattered pinwheels I've ever seen, torn-up, sunburnt and covered in dust. My initial reaction was pure Simon Cowell, "It's a no from me, I'm afraid." But, out of politeness, I continued to gently lead the patron to the logical conclusion.
"Are they all in this condition?"
(somewhat defensively) "These are pretty good."
"What inspired you to want to donate them here? Do you think these would look better on the lawn here than at your house?"
"Um... they look okay."
"Do you think it would make people happy to see them?"
"Why don't you recycle or throw them out? Then purchase new ones, which we'd be happy to install."
"I can't afford to do that!"
"This one is torn. This one doesn't spin anymore."
"So you don't want them?"