5 Great Places to
Donate Your Old Books

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: David Harrigan, Canopy/Getty Images

I’ve read enough Marie Kondo in my time that I can’t look at a pile of books in my house without interrogating myself about joy, tidiness, self-worth, and the like. And for that very reason I have three Trader Joe’s bags full of books in the trunk of my car, in search of a home. But which home? There are the standbys, of course — your kids’ schools, the local library, Goodwill, that adorable Little Free Library down the street. But where else can they go where they will live a full second life (and not end up in the landfill)?

I asked the Internet, and the Internet answered.

Send them to Africa

Photo credit: flickr, BFA Delivers Books to Schools in Dakar, Senegal (January 2010)

The Books for Africa mission is simple and evocative — putting an end to Africa’s book famine. The nonprofit, founded in 1988, takes individual donations of fiction and nonfiction titles but is especially keen on timely reference and textbooks. Over 2.4 million bound books and 1.6 million digital books have been sent so far this year, dispersed across 21 African countries. (They send computers, e-Readers, and school supplies as well.)

Appropriate donations include:

  • popular fiction and nonfiction books, both paperback and hardcover
  • books that are less than 15 years old
  • primary, secondary, and college textbooks (soft and hard cover) published after 2000
  • reference books published after 2005
  • medical, nursing, IT, and law books published after 2000

(Bibles sent only as requested.)

If you are sitting on a personal goldmine of books, or feel like spearheading a used book drive in your community, The African Library Project connects book drives in the U.S. to schools across Africa. A donation of 1,000 books and $500 to cover shipping equals one functioning library — and you’d be surprised how quickly book donations add up once you put out the APB. (In other words, you are not alone in a) your hoarding; b) your love of books; c) your do-gooder impulses.) To date, The African Library Project has completed 1,911 libraries across Africa and donated more than 2 million books.

Note that both organizations ask for financial assistance in addition to used book donations, because shipping books across the Atlantic isn’t cheap. In fact, it can cost up to $16,000 for one shipping container — but that breaks down to about 50 cents per book.

Send them to soldiers

Photo credit: Operation Paperback

Think Operation Gratitude, but for used books. Both Books for Soldiers and Operation Paperback (and smaller, local chapters like Tampa Bay’s Books for Troops) connect volunteers directly with soldiers stationed overseas who have requested specific book titles or genres. It’s a distributed model — i.e. there’s no central clearinghouse for books, just you — and shipping is an added cost, typically about $20 per care package.

To date, Books for Soldiers has shipped more than $30 million in care packages to U.S. troops serving overseas and Operation Paperback has delivered upwards of 2.2 million books to over 30 locations across the globe. Donations also benefit wounded warriors and vets who have returned home, as well as amazing and tear-jerking programs like the USO’s United Through Reading program, which helps deployed soldiers read their kids bedtime stories, virtually.

To get access to either database of requests, you need to register.

Send them to prisoners

Photo credit: Paul Gargagliano, Books Through Bars

Volunteer-run nonprofits like Books Through Bars and Books to Prisoners connect your old books with incarcerated individuals across the country, in hopes of fostering a love of reading behind bars and breaking the cycle of recidivism through education and empowerment.

Every month, Books Through Bars sends approximately 2,100 books to about 700 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania and six surrounding states. Seattle-based Books to Prisoners, which receives more than 1,000 monthly book requests, does the same in the Pacific Northwest, although currently they are at capacity for books and are asking for monetary donations to help with shipping — about $70/box — instead.

Prison book programs are limited by prison restrictions — like a fairly widespread ban on hardcover books — and of course prisoner requests. Both Books Through Bars and Books to Prisoners have most-wanted lists — the #1 most-requested book is a paperback dictionary. (Spanish-English? Even better!)

Peruse your shelves for the following:

  • Instructional art (how to draw, paint)
  • African-American studies and history
  • Puerto Rican history
  • Urban Fiction (e.g. Teri Woods, Sister Souljah, Eric Jerome Dickey)
  • Small business, including real estate
  • Trade skills (including plumbing, electricity, carpentry, construction, auto mechanics)
  • Puzzle and game books (including chess, crosswords, sudoku, and role-playing manuals)
  • True crime
  • Thesauruses
  • Legal self-help
  • GED preparation materials
  • Westerns
  • Thrillers
  • Murder mysteries
  • Horror novels
  • Books on the occult, aliens, conspiracy theories, and New Age

Because the cost of shipping is, again, an obstacle, Prison Book Program, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, maintains a list of places across the U.S. that take in-person donations.

Send them to the dogs

Yes, dogs. In small efforts across the country, animal shelters and other dog-friendly organizations are connecting canines, kids, and books to help all involved. At the Humane Society of Missouri, for one, the Shelter Buddies Reading Program gets kids ages 6 to 15 to read to shelter dogs, as a way of getting the dogs ready for adoption. On the flip side, Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D) programs, based on a model out of Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City, Utah, connect children who have difficulties reading with therapy dogs, under the premise that children will find reading to an animal less intimidating and a more positive experience overall. In Connecticut, Jill Greto and Jennifer DeGraaf  donated books to support the Read with Me program out of Pet Partners, a local dog therapy organization that pairs therapy dogs with struggling readers. Jennifer and her dog, Beau, (pictured above) also took part in reading with the kids.

Send them to your local book-lovers

Photos credit: Taqwa Gad, EyeEm/Getty Images
Photos credit: Taqwa Gad, EyeEm/Getty Images

In Los Angeles, where I live, there’s an amazing service called Re-Book It. It’s a free community project out of the also amazing place called The Last Bookstore. They offer free pickup throughout Los Angeles county, and donations benefit libraries, schools, at-risk children, hospitals, and the Last Bookstore. Basically, they do all the work for you — and your books are put to good use by people who really know and love used books.

What’s your Re-Book It? It might be a book drive through a local church, library, school, or volunteer organization. And you can always check Better World Books, which has drop boxes across the country. To date, 20.5 million books have been donated, 237.6 million have been reused or recycled, and $23.7 million raised in the name of literacy projects. Amen to that.