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Mental health and self-care at university: academic staff.

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What do you do when your mind understands potential harm caused by an environment, yet when you are physically there you willingly jump inside the hamster-wheel, and even perpetuate the process for others?

I took two months away from my usual academic duties at the end of last year, focussing solely on completing my PhD candidacy document. I worked from home for most of it. During this “break”, where I worked consistently and productively each day, my reflection on my workplace was:

“My goodness we do and expect some things that are completely whack!”

Yerga, D. (2007). La hipoteca / Mortgage [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/heartindustry/875659855/

I returned to work in January with a resolution. This year, decisions I made about my work would consider carefully the mental health of both my colleagues and my students. This post focusses on academic staff mental health. I will write about students in the future.

Being physically away from campus, focussing on just one aspect of my work, allowed my body a break from the constant adrenaline-bath of being involved in teaching, administration and research. The minute-by-minute decision whether to complete a task to the standard and time 1) allocated by the university workload system, or 2) that it needs, or even 3) that is expected and reinforced by the university promotion system and academic culture. An ever-increasing hierarchy of demand, starting with the academic workload system’s impossibly inadequate allocation, moving through to academic culture’s unrealistically impossible demands.

Constantly feeling inadequate because I simply cannot perform work in the time allocated, even to the lowest possible standard. Working extra hours, and completing a large amount of what was expected, but then looking at the standard of my output and feeling like I was letting down my students, the university, the profession students would graduate to, colleagues and myself. A feeling of constantly cutting corners. Feeling like I was not empathising with the very real life impact of my decisions on students because I simply could not take the care and time needed. Like I could not create the most effective learning environment. And as a researcher? Totally avoidant due to my own inability. Merely finding convenient excuses not to do the reading and writing that I should do to maintain currency in what are meant to be my passions.

Then internalising blame for feeling like this. Feeling this way was simply my fault because I am overly-perfectionist, and if I had better time-management skills I could manage my own workload. It was surely my own desire to do things in a way that interested me, or do that little bit extra, that meant I complicated each task. If I only stopped over-thinking and over-doing then I should have plenty of time to achieve what was needed to the standard required. It’s up to me to say “no”, and I should do it. That if I exercised more I would be fresher and more resilient. I was somehow creating a spiral of inadequacy by getting so tired out trying to manage it all. That surely if I could work out how to be more efficient, and somehow caught up on what felt like an ever-growing backlog, I could do it differently in the future, in the way expected.

lauren rushing. (2011). [No title] [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/white_ribbons/6264803246/

Despite how I felt I was doing my job, I was promoted to Senior Lecturer at the end of last year. 

I have an ongoing position, which in Australia is as secure tenure as is possible. This makes me ridiculously and abberantly lucky.

In Australia, one estimate suggests that between 50-80% of all undergraduate teaching is done by casual/short contract staff. All going through similar mental gymnastics about their performance, but with the stakes being not only their self-concept and mental health, but whether they will be re-hired next semester.

Returning to work this year, I can see colleagues caught in the same spiral. Health issues directly related to stress are not uncommon. Collectively we watch each other work ridiculously long hours and achieve some wonderful outcomes. We make plans collectively as though the workload allocation was actually fair and reasonable. If we cannot fit it all in, then we are the ones at fault rather than the system we work in.

Not helping colleagues shoulder their load feels churlish. We very easily see when someone else is working too-long hours. Sometimes I think we feel more protective of them than of ourselves, when we are actually exhibiting exactly the same behaviour. Academics engaging in protective behaviours that limit their own overwork can be characterised as not team players, and “problem people”…and their actions do have real impact on already-overloaded team members. Self-care can mean actively not caring for others. An environment where we need to make this choice is whack.

There is a lot of discouraging “help” offered out there. Like the very sound suggestion that if academics replace “more” with “enough” they would be happier and healthier …with the kicker that …. then we would not have to work the expected 80-hour work week … but could do perfectly fine if we just do 50 hours per week.

I also came across this wonderfully, eloquent outline by Kate Bowles of a system that encourages lack of self-care and reinforces collusion in perpetuating this… . I find it really chilling because earlier this year I sent exactly the series of texts listed to members of my monthly bookclub from work one evening… and then went home to bed with a small cold that knocked me around far more than it should have for three or so weeks.

… throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.


They will give you their health, their family time, the time they intended to spend on things that were ethically important to them, their creativity, their sleep. They will volunteer to give you all of this so that you can run your business on a shoestring, relative to what you intend to produce, so that you can be better than the business up the road. They will blame themselves if they can’t find enough of this borrowed time—other people’s borrowed time—to hand over to you.


Just wait while I send this email. Start without me. I’ll be along in a bit. Do you mind if I don’t come? 


They will do this at all levels of the career, even if you pay them by the hour at a real rate that disintegrates to something approaching casual retail work once you factor in all the things they’ll have to do on their own time to get the job done well. They will do this especially if they’re also trying to run alongside the speeding train that might represent their future career hopes.


Some days they will also drive each other for you. They will whisper about each other, and turn a blind eye to each other,  and not quite find the time to act on their own secret critical thinking about any of it. They will also surreptitiously maintain each other through care and coping practices and shrugs in the corridor and exchanged glances and raised eyebrows in meetings and Friday drinks that become chronic, secretive drinking problems so that they can get some rest without writing emails in their heads at 3am.


In fact, if you get the scarcity, intermittency and celebratory settings for occasional reward just right, then the toxic alchemy of hope and shame will diminish their capacity for solidarity, and they will keep the whole thing going for you, in the name of commitment, professional standards, the value of scholarship, academic freedom, the public good of educational equity.


But I love teachingI love my students. I love my research. I love that I get to work from home on Fridays. And Saturdays. And Sundays.


Until they don’t. Until they can’t.

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annacreech
127 days ago
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Oof. Hard truths. I sometimes feel like I'm not achieving enough, but I'm not willing to give up my time to do what I see my higher achieving colleagues do. I feel lucky to be in a place where I can make that choice and survive.
Richmond, VA
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Repository Ouroboros

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This is observational. This is autobiographical. This melds my own experiences as Metadata Librarian and Digital Collections Librarian with those of dozens of metadataists I’ve known over the years. This is born of hearing the same existential crisis again and again. If you are somewhere on the ouroboros, you are not alone, you are not broken, and you are not hopelessly behind.

The library is going to adopt a new repository and you just got hired to make it happen. You may be fresh out of library school with a few metadata projects under your belt. Perhaps you did metadata work on a two-year digitization grant and are looking forward to getting out of the spreadsheet mines. Or maybe you worked in a similar job at your last institution—running a turnkey repository like DSpace, CONTENTdm, or BePress. Perhaps you’ve moved into the role at an angle, from something more traditional like cataloging.

Whatever the case, congrats on becoming a metadata librarian, digital collections librarian, digital archivist, or whatever they’ve decided to title this position no one quite understands! Looks like the institution has a couple developers on staff, so you’re going to adopt something more extensible than BePress—Repository Q. You’ve heard great things about Repository Q. A lot of tech questions and decisions are about to come your way, so you cram Agile/Scrum/XML/RDF/Linked Data/DublinCore/MODS/general design principles.

You do a lot of reading and go to presentations. You look at other repositories built using Q and its earlier cousins, P, J, and F. It’s exciting! Some of the top libraries in the country use Repository Q. You do outreach to stakeholders. You gather requirements. You do your best to make a whole lot of different needs work. You prioritize. You try to understand what the developers are asking. You try to explain what you need. You ask questions in the community, but it seems like everyone else is on a slightly older and different version of the software. Some major underlying pieces have changed. But how exciting! You get to be on the cutting edge.

You start preparing objects and data. You ask how you can add things in batches. You’re told it’s doable, but it doesn’t come out of the box, so you add it to the development roadmap. A couple years go by. You attend community groups. You do lots of testing. You keep meeting with the stakeholders. You remind them that you’re adapting this software to meet all kinds of different needs and you’re very close. Yes, that other person’s needs got prioritized first. No, that doesn’t come out of the box, but you’ve heard it’s being developed by another institution! You saw a demo at the last conference you went to. You send out a link to the presentation. Everyone loves it. It’s great that you’re adopting this software because community development means you’re going to get so many cool features automatically once you’ve adopted it.

You keep going to community meetings. You present on how your institution’s project is nearly done. You’re sitting in a tech talk where you only understand about a third of what’s being said. You start to get an uneasy sense about the really cool new feature you were expecting. What’s that they’re saying? Different direction? Some new product names you don’t recognize?

After the meeting, you check in with your dev coworkers. They’re really excited but also a bit stressed. Yes, you got the gist correctly. A group in the community has decided to take a completely new approach to how an underlying function is done. It’s going to allow for a lot of awesome stuff and make it much easier to implement that new feature. They’re already using it in production at Institution Y. One of the devs went to a half-day workshop on it yesterday and thinks it’ll be really transformative.

Of course, you won’t be able to adopt it quite yet. It’s much too close to your launch to completely change how you do that underlying function and would require shifting some major components. So you’re going to go ahead with Repository Q, but you should start learning now about Repository X in order to make sure you can migrate the data once X is more mainstream. You redo your schedule to attend sessions where you can learn more about X. You learn that X is going to bring you in line with some very cutting-edge data practices you’ve heard about elsewhere, but don’t quite understand yet.

You come back from the conference and report to your stakeholders. That new feature isn’t actually on the roadmap for this version of the software any more, but here’s all the cool new features you’ve learned about in those sessions on X. You do your best to manage expectations. It’s going to be a little while before you can move to X. Your software is still built on Q and all the data you’ve been preparing is intended for that. Anyway, the launch is coming up soon and how exciting is that?

You work very hard on preparing the data, putting it in, testing. You’re lucky, and you’ve got a pretty straightforward migration from some older system and a lot of new data to create and work with. You’ve heard stories from people doing much more difficult migrations. You watch the software’s Slack and show up to affiliate meetings online and in your local area. You notice that X has become the really new thing. Your AD for tech asks you about X. It seems like nobody is moving to Q any more. Of course, you’ve met a few other people who have recently adopted Q. You start talking about X migration with them.

You present on your brand new Q Repository at the next big community software meeting and everyone is very complimentary. Your developer colleagues have done a great job. Your stakeholders have found some great collections to highlight. Of course, it’s still new so it doesn’t support quite everything you’d like yet. That’s fine, one of the upsides of working on community software is you can find partners to develop this stuff together. You keep adding materials, meeting with stakeholders, and letting them know what’s next on the horizon.

Bad news. One of the developers reports back that four features on which you’d counted to make repository shine have been moved from Q-model to X-model. The community just put in two sprints to change a bunch of underlying code to fit with X and your coworker isn’t sure it would be really feasible to bring these back to Q. They work on some of the other changes you’ve identified, and you push those features to your “once we migrate to X” sheet. Since you presented on these features library-wide, you get a few questions about when they’re coming. You try to keep a positive attitude.

You’re pretty lucky, though. After about 2 years of having the repository up, you’ve put in some nice collections. You’re proud of it, even though you’ve got a mental list of all the features you’d like to see. You’ve had some rather rough encounters with coworkers whose collections can’t really go into the repository until after the X migration. You didn’t realize how much of your job would require expectations management and walking back things you had told people you’d be able to do. Mostly they’re not mad, just disappointed. But, you’re lucky. You’ve got some coworkers who love what you’ve been able to do.

Now that your repository has been up for a bit and the developers have had a chance to get their hands onto X, you start preparing for an X migration. You make some library-wide presentations about Repository X, why it’s a good idea to migrate to it, and what this will mean. Your AD has approved the work, as quite a few of their peers are interested in Repository X too. As you add more data, you continue to think about how you’ll migrate it and what you’ll be forced to change. You slow down a bit on adding data as you start to write out new data profiles for Repository X. You’re lucky, your developer coworkers are pretty good at data manipulation and they work with you on the crosswalks you’ve come up with. You start to get some copies of existing collections into your Test Repository X.

You bring the test repository to the next community meeting and present on your migration strategies and what you plan to do with these four great new features you’re getting. You start to hear about some even cooler new ideas and know exactly which stakeholders would love those. You come back to your library and present to stakeholders about how the Repository X migration is going. You explain that you’ll have to put a freeze on adding new collections while you work through the migration. Someone whose work got pushed to the end of the queue is pretty disappointed. Fortunately, this cooler new idea would be a bonus for their collection and you come up with a few really great examples which get everyone in the room excited again.

A few months go by and your move to the new Repository X instance is going pretty well. You’ve heard some real horror stories that make you grateful for your coworkers’ assistance and the knowledge you’ve picked up along the way. By now, you have a pretty decent idea of about two-thirds of what people are saying in community tech presentations. But you can’t help noticing a new term around the repository community. Someone’s gotten a big grant to work on Z. Five institutions are participating. Z will have all the features of X but be easier to manage. It’ll also have some rad new features and a better way of handling the underlying data.

You can’t help but notice that several of those new features are things which are on the Repository X roadmap. You take a deep breath and email the repository tech listserv. What does Project Z mean for Repository X. This time, you can only understand about 25% of the responses. You feel embarrassed. You’ve been part of this community for years, but sometimes it still all sounds like another language to you. You thank people for their replies, but don’t really know what it means.

You message one of your former developer coworkers who now works at an institution working on the Project Z grant. They’re a great person and always tell it to you straight. They confirm your suspicion. These features, including that one you introduced in the last stakeholder meeting, are all going away from the Repository X roadmap. Your former colleague notes that only one person is really maintaining stuff around Repository Q any more, so it’s good you’ve moved to Repository X, but advises you to stay on top of Z.

You hear more and more about Z and notice that nobody seems to be working on anything related to X any more. That one person who’d been maintaining Repository Q is keeping things from breaking in X too. Well, from breaking too often. Your new developer coworkers plan a couple sprints to fix some serious issues with X. They’re mostly familiar with Repository Z, because by the time they joined the community, that’s what most of the conversation was around. It looks like Repository X is pretty much dead. The team you work with knows how to maintain it and add a few little local tweaks which make your life easier. But it’s not getting those features you wanted. Of course, you don’t have as many people as the institutions working on Project Z.

You check in with that former coworker who’s on the Project Z grant. They suggest that you might apply for a job at their institution soon. They’re about to do a big migration from Repository J to Repository Z and they’ll be hiring people with your skills. Your CV looks great. You have 5 years of experience in the community. You know some people at the institution who’ve been very nice to you.

But you feel like a fraud. You feel so discouraged. You are sure everyone else is ahead of you. You do not yet see that you are just one more person riding the Repository Ouroboros.

an image of a sad and cute fox-like ouroboros eating its own tail

NB, This is often a very gendered situation. This does not mean that even male developers at well-resourced institutions do not experience similar crises, but I ask Who’s the One Left Saying Sorry to institutional stakeholders as the course continually changes?

Image: Fol. 279 of Codex Parisinus graecus 2327, wikimedia commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Serpiente_alquimica.jpg

Further reading

The above is an affective and observational approach to the struggles of librarians working in repositories. The following articles provide scholarly perspectives on aspects of the work. Dohe’s “Care, Code, and Digital Libraries,” is the most directly parallel to this piece in its focus on repository development processes and roles. Kendrick studies morale on the whole. Salo’s writing deals more specifically with issues of scholarly communication and institutional repositories. My own survey on deposit rates and institutional repositories was conducted to provide context to those who might feel their own repository an outlier for having low deposit rates, but does not address issues of development process.

Kate Dohe. “Care, Code, and Digital Libraries: Embracing Critical Practice in Digital Library Communities.” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, February 20, 2019. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2019/digital-libraries-critical-practice-in-communities/.

Kaetrena Davis Kendrick. “The low-morale experience of academic librarians: A phenomenological study.” Journal of Library Administration, 57, no. 8( 2017): 846-878. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01930826.2017.1368325

Dorothea Salo. “Innkeeper at the Roach Motel.” Library Trends 57, no. 2 (2008): 98-123. http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1793/22088

Dorothea Salo, “How to Scuttle a Scholarly Communication Initiative.” Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 1, no. 4 (2013): p.eP1075. DOI: http://doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.1075

Ruth K. Tillman. “Where Are We Now? Survey on Rates of Faculty Self-Deposit in Institutional Repositories.” Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 5, no. 1 (2017):, p.eP2203. DOI: http://doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.2203

The post Repository Ouroboros appeared first on Ruth Kitchin Tillman.

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annacreech
130 days ago
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Oof. This hits close to home, though ERMS development has come at a bit slower pace.
Richmond, VA
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Library Jargon

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German shepherd sitting in the grass, head tilted like he is confused or curious.
“Freya,” by Ashley Coombs

This is my first post for ACRLog in my new position as a community college librarian! Starting a new job, I see everything in a new light. Circulation processes, internal record-keeping, who to email for what: all this is fresh for me at this institution. My brain has to work much harder than when I’m settled and on autopilot. It’s a natural part of any transition, and though it’s sometimes uncomfortable, this perspective is also helping me re-evaluate my use of jargon is a big way.

Specialized library vocabulary can be an intimidating source of library anxiety. Erin L. McAfee says that “feelings of inadequacy, confusion, shyness, and frustration” are emotional barriers that create distance between us and our patrons. Jargon we don’t understand definitely leads to confusion and frustration, and I want to do everything I can to reduce that library anxiety and help all students feel like they can be welcome here.

I’m looking for ways to make my speech more accessible to new library users in the classroom and in teaching tools like LibGuides, but there is also research to show that students prefer a de-jargonized website as well. “Students prefer simple natural language,” and even if we include a glossary of terms on our website there’s no guarantee they’ll read it or get anything from it. Better to examine our language and meet students where they are, in my opinion. So what are some of the words I’d like to revisit?

“Reference” is a word I have increasing trouble with. When I call myself a reference librarian, I immediately explain, “That means I help you with research.” Should I start calling myself a “research librarian” as many institutions do? Luckily, my new institution has already dropped the word “reference” and just calls all their librarians “librarians.” And when “reference” means the start-your-research tools like encyclopedias and overviews, I’ve considered moving toward calling these simply “background info.”

There is also internal language that serves librarians but really shouldn’t be used when communicating with students. In my opinion, “PAC”/”OPAC” is internal language, and so is “serials.” Mark Aaron Polger’s study shows that while librarians prefer the term “database” on the library website, students are looking for a button that says “articles.” I think “database” is a word we’re all so comfortable using that we can’t think of a logical replacement. But based on these findings, I know I need to simply define a database as a place you search for articles.

Some people squirm at the idea of giving a definition that is not exhaustive. “A database doesn’t always contain articles!” or “Not everything that’s searchable is a database!” But isn’t it enough to get a first-time library user started? Couldn’t we get more specific once they’re comfortable or in a discipline-specific class?

Acronyms are another type of jargon that tempt librarians and college staff in general. Acronyms are often made in the service of speeding up communication, but they also create a group of people who are in the know and a group that has no idea what the alphabet soup means. Taking the time to spell out the acronym the first time it’s used is worth doing.

Tammi Owens’ presentation on library jargon concludes that “the library’s online presence should be engaging and empowering, not confusing, overwhelming, or anxiety-inducing.” Those words inspire me as a teacher too. There are plenty of teachers who project authority and expertise, and there are learners who benefit from that approach. But I like the idea of my classroom presence being engaging and empowering, not confusing or overwhelming. I want my students to understand me. I want them to feel like searching skills are within their capacity, and I’d rather be accessible than impressive. Acknowledging that jargon exists is the place to start, and endeavoring to define, simplify, or eliminate it is the way forward.

What words do you find yourself constantly defining? Are there words you wish librarians would stop using?

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annacreech
260 days ago
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Richmond, VA
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strip for January / 24 / 2019 - **AND I CLAPPED!**

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strip for January / 24 / 2019 - **AND I CLAPPED!**
**AND I CLAPPED!**

Jump to a Random Strip in the Archives! | Archives | E-mail Dave

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annacreech
320 days ago
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It's been so long since this plot line was touched that I had to dig back through the archives to AUGUST to find the previous scene. I'd almost rather stop reading and just wait for him to finish the book, TBH.
Richmond, VA
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arXiv

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Both arXiv and archive.org are invaluable projects which, if they didn't exist, we would dismiss as obviously ridiculous and unworkable.
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annacreech
358 days ago
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::silently weeping as I pay the Elsevier/Springer/Wiley/AIP bills::
Richmond, VA
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2 public comments
alt_text_at_your_service
361 days ago
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Both arXiv and archive.org are invaluable projects which, if they didn't exist, we would dismiss as obviously ridiculous and unworkable.
alt_text_bot
361 days ago
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Both arXiv and archive.org are invaluable projects which, if they didn't exist, we would dismiss as obviously ridiculous and unworkable.

Ask a Librarian: What do I do with these old books?

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13 liquor boxes full of books
When you work with libraries, people ask you a lot of questions about what to do with old books, presumably books they don’t want. Here are ten tips that are good to know about donating books in general.

  1. Just because books are old doesn’t make them valuable (you can check values here). Librarians intrinsically know this but many other people don’t.
  2. Just because someone had a massive research collection of books/papers on a topic doesn’t mean that a library could benefit from that but maybe they could. It’s always AOK to find a library–almost always an academic or special library–that specializes in whatever the topic is, and ask if they want them.
  3. Most library booksales are run by friends groups and not the library (learn more about friends groups here)
  4. Donating to a library usually means books will go into the book sale (or possibly even be recycled) and almost never means they will go on the shelf. Do not donate books to a library unless you are clear on this and okay with this.
  5. At libraries with really active booksales, books with higher value may get sold online, not at the local sale. The benefit to donating to the library is that the money goes to the library (or the Friends of the Library and ultimately the library) If you have fancy signed first editions, you might be better off selling them yourself on eBay and donating that money to the library.
  6. There is standard stuff most libraries don’t want including textbooks, old reference books, Readers Digest condensed books and anything damp, moldy or in bad shape. Many libraries have more information on their websites about what they specifically want and don’t want.
  7. It’s always a great idea to call/email to make sure the library is accepting donations and ask when a good time is to come by.
  8. Libraries are non-profit so you can often get a tax deduction for your donation but you may need to ask for a receipt.
  9. Pack up your books in durable boxes that are liftable by the average 50-70 year old person.
  10. Do not presume the library will have a hand cart, but you can usually presume they will have an accessible entrance.

Sometimes you have books or other readable stuff that just won’t make the cut to be in the library booksale. It happens. There are many other things that can be done with old books including book art (maybe you have a book artist near you), donation or recycling, or maybe even fire starters (let me know if you need a note saying this is okay). I just donated about 300 books to my local library for their booksale. I contacted them on facebook and they gave me a good time to come by. They had a hand truck but no one available to help move books. I got a receipt for my donation. They told me where to park to minimize the distance I had to carry the books. It went really well. Got some extra books laying around? Consider donating them to the public library!

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annacreech
441 days ago
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Richmond, VA
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3 public comments
mareino
459 days ago
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Also: in 99% of America, there is no need for you to build a little "lending library" birdhouse thing and stick it in your front yard. Your impulse to share knowledge is good, but you are just creating a weak imitation of a professionally run public service.
Washington, District of Columbia
sirshannon
460 days ago
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I have quite a few books on my shelves that I bought used on Amazon, sold by Goodwill and libraries (or both).
darastar
461 days ago
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SHARING IS CARING.

Libraries may not put your old books on the shelf, but the money they raise with them will get put to good use!
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