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The Pros (and Sometimes Pratfalls) of Giving Your Books to the Library

In a fit of pre-Christmas cleaning I decided to donate some unwanted books to a good cause. My bookshelves were weeded out and a giant bag of donations was duly packed, ready for transportation to my charity of choice: The Toronto Public Library Foundation.

But the library has squillions of books, you may be thinking. What could they possibly want with your rejects?

Libraries have been much in the news in both my home countries throughout 2011. In the UK the biggest headline grab came courtesy of Alan Bennett who suggested that the many library closures facing the country were tantamount to “child abuse.” In Toronto, Margaret Atwood became an authorial face of the campaign to stop library closures in the city.

The issue, of course, is not just to have buildings full of books that we can borrow, but to safeguard an organization that promotes reading for pleasure as well as out of necessity. Alan Bennett fears his country, by stripping away a source of words and the environment that encourages taking pleasure in them, has a childhood development crisis on its hands. A press release issued by First Book Canada this week brings no better news. A “Reading for Joy” report has found that only 50 percent of kids in grades 3 and 6 reported that they actually “like to read,” even though test scores have gone up. Knowing how to do it is one thing, but making it something to be enjoyed is vital too. Books donated to the Toronto Public Library Foundation support programs aimed at combatting exactly these issues.

Having done a little Googling and talked to the helpful staff at the Toronto Public Library Foundation on the phone, I set out, Santa-style, into the cold toting a really f*@#ing heavy bag of books.

My expedition was not without mishap. Nearing the end of a four-block detour necessitated by having neither change nor tokens to get the TTC, I was marvelling at how well my ALDO bag was holding up under the strain, even while my fingers had been all but severed by the string handles. And then the bottom of the bag gave out and my books slid onto the ground in the middle of the intersection of College and Spadina — half on the streetcar tracks and half on the streetcar platform. I squatted in the street to pick them up, trying to figure out what I was going to with 20 hardback books and only two hands in the middle of six lanes of traffic. Contemplating hailing a cab and loading the books into it three at a time (and also, by this time, rather wishing I’d worn a longer skirt) I was rescued by a kindly stranger waiting at the streetcar stop. This man (a dog owner perhaps, or else how to explain what happened next) took pity on me and wandered over while magically producing a series of plastic bags from his pocket. Thus rescued, I bagged up the books and battled onward on the TTC.

Upon arrival at the library, my donations were deposited in a box outside the Book Ends South bookstore: “A bookstore for gently used books — Toronto’s best kept secret!” I popped in to the store too, of course, snagging myself a “lightly used” paperback of Wuthering Heights for a buck. Bargain!

So where did my 20 books and my one dollar go? Certain books left in this drop box will find a home as part of the library’s collection, but perhaps most importantly, those that don’t will be used to raise funds for the library’s programs to promote literacy and the love of reading. The books are sold in the Books Ends bookstore and during Keep Toronto Reading month when the library holds sales in subway stations.

When I spoke to Heather Rumball, President of the Toronto Public Library Foundation, she had just returned from the Foundation’s AGM and was full of praise for their “Tremendous group of volunteers.” The combined North and South Chapter Friends (based at the North York and Toronto Reference Libraries respectively) donate in the region of $100,000 each year to help fund library programs to improve literacy, she said. That includes programs such as Leading to Reading and Dial-a-Story, both of which not only help reading development in youth but also aim to foster a love of the activity, which, as noted in the First Book Canada release, is a sentiment falling out of favour with Ontario’s kids.

It’s a familiar complaint among bibliophiles that we have more books than shelves on which to put them. Access to books and literacy is a basic but essential gift, and one which, by sharing, we can easily bestow. The Toronto Reference Library is currently undergoing construction, but a new, improved and much larger Books Ends store will be opening in January. Maybe some of the books they offer for sale will once have been yours? If you are planning to drop some off though, here’s a little bit of advice: pack them in a sturdy box, and find a friend with a car to drive you.

WHAT TO GIVE: Books that are in good condition and, if you want them to have a shot at getting in to the library’s own collection, less than five years old. As you might expect, mysteries and thrillers are particularly popular in the second-hand bookstore.

WHAT NOT TO GIVE: Back issues of periodicals, reference books, encyclopedias.

HOW TO DONATE: Simply place your books in the drop box at either the North York Public Library or Toronto Reference Library whenever the library is open. Check the website for hours.

DON’T HAVE ENOUGH SPARE BOOKS? You can also donate money, either in your own name or as a gift in someone else’s. And of course programs such as Leading to Reading are always looking for volunteers


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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