How to DIY a library: the ingredients

You know those cooking blogs, where the author’s like, the first time I ever heard the term crème brulee, I was a college freshman and it was raining. And then after the description of blogger’s divorce and a joke somebody told on the subway, there are 80 moodily-lit photographs of whisks, and of the blogger’s hands holding eggs, and it takes so long to find the actual recipe that you nearly die of hunger?

Let’s not do that.

Here’s what I used to make the library, what it cost, and how it worked:

getting started

Stuff I already had:

The school made two spaces available to me: the English classroom and the history classroom. I used both. (Both will continue to operate as classrooms, but are now filled with books.)

Donated by students’ families.

Several hundred books
A mixed collection of the director’s personal books and books she purchased for the school, donations from families, and materials left in the English classroom by various teachers over the years.

A laptop with internet capability to run the catalog
A staff member’s retired laptop; she was glad to give it a new home.

Passion and energy
Heck yeah.



Stuff I bought*:

*Note: I’m not receiving payment of any kind for listing these products, nor is this necessarily a whole-hearted endorsement; this list is simply what I used and how it worked—or didn’t–for me.

A barcode reader: $23
I chose this ESKY USB Barcode Reader and it works beautifully. It’s very plug-and-play: you plug it into a USB port and go. The instructions are extraordinarily minimal, which may be frustrating (the enclosed instruction booklet is literally just a series of different barcodes, which you interact with by scanning them—for example, to raise or lower the scanner’s volume). Additionally, my reader came missing a few of the pieces of the stand. The vendor claimed to be shipping us a new one, but it has yet to be seen. Overall, though, a solid product.

Cataloging software: Readerware, books-only database: $40
There is a lot of free and open source cataloging software available for the tech-savvy among us (see this great list compiled by “The Creative Librarian” here). However, I felt a little tentative—just switching from one browser to another sometimes feels like a spacewalk to me. Also, I was afraid of passing anything too complicated on to a predecessor when this project wrapped up. I still didn’t have thousands of dollars for a license for a large-scale catalog program, but I also didn’t need one: the Skybrary can hold about 1500 books, tops. So I looked instead into software for small libraries and stumbled across some great advice from Goodreads users who were curating their own collections. After playing with a few free trials, I settled on Readerware.
What I like: that $40 fee is one-time only, not annual. Unless the software undergoes a major upgrade, you won’t have to pay another dime (as the program is only on version 3.8, it seems like major upgrades are relatively few and far between). It’s a low-impact program and requires little in the way of processing power, meaning you can run it off an older laptop and avoid shelling out lots of money for a fancy check-out station. Their website is filled with useful tutorials, and their support is active and helpful. Finally, Readerware allows you to copy-catalog from a variety of publicly available databases, such as the Library of Congress and Amazon, and its interface is pretty user-friendly. If you’ve got an ISBN or are able to find the item on Amazon, you’re golden.
Downsides: The records that the program imports in aren’t always complete; often, most notably, they lack Dewey call numbers. I felt like the cost and overall quality of the product more than made up for it. If you’re curious, you can try it 30 days for free and see if it works for you.

Spine labels (100 sheets of 50 labels): $12.99
I used these and made my own spine label template (which I’m happy to share–leave a comment below & I’ll send it your way). They print easily and are self-adhesive, but have a plain paper finish—you’ll definitely want to use a clear spine label protector if you want them to last for more than a week. They can also be a little fussy about sticking to cloth-bound books. The label protector will help with this, too.

Spine label protectors (250/box, 5 boxes): $130
I use Demco Clear Glossy Label Protectors size 1.5″x2″, and they work like a dream. I also bought a handful of color-tinted ones (same size, one box each) for genre-labeling.

Clear labels: $11.84/box * 5 boxes = $60
Colored labels: $14/box * 5 = $70

Display easels (20 for $1.25 each): with shipping, $30.40
I got these because they were the cheapest results turned up by Google Shopping. They are, as reflected by the price, cheap.  The depth of the tray in the front is very shallow, best suited for books 180 pages and thinner. I also felt the angle of recline was too high, leaving my books leaning back like your grandpa in a La-Z-Boy. Fortunately, they’re pretty easy to bend (due to cheapness), and you can prop thicker books into them without fearing for the lives of the people below. Overall, if you can afford it, I’d get something a little nicer, but if you’re in a budget pinch, these’ll do ya just fine. (Note: if you buy in quantities other than multiples of 20, they charge a $10 fee for breaking the lot.)

A library stamp: $10
I ordered this one. It’s inexpensive, self-inking and customizable, and I love the font options. However, it also hasn’t arrived, so I can’t tell you much more than that. Give yourself a long lead time on this product, or be willing (as I am) to start school without a nifty little stamp on your books.


The books:
Because I acquired books a number of ways, and because they are (for obvious reasons) of major interest to budding librarians, I’m giving them their own category.

I’ll get more into the nitty-gritty of soliciting donations in my post on outreach e-mails/letters, but briefly: I solicited donations from the library, English and creative writing graduate programs of my university, from the library school alumni, and from Skybridge Academy families.( I did not ask for, or accept, monetary donations.) As you’ll see later, the bulk of our new collection materials came from donations.

Thrift Stores
Confession: I’m a true thrift store junkie. Every time I was in a thrift shop with friends this summer, I blew through the book section and nabbed all of the good-quality books of interest to my school’s age group. Most thrift stores sell books for between 25 cents and $2 a pop—if you’ve got a small book-buying budget, this will help your collection grow a lot for very little.

Recycled Reads
This is, unfortunately for the rest of the world, unique to Austin, Texas. The Austin Public Library, rather than hosting an annual, chaotic, crammed-in-a-church-basement book sale, runs a beautifully curated used book store that’s open year round. The staff is awesome and innovative and runs knitting groups and craft workshops and (most importantly for the purposes of local teachers and librarians) SELLS ALL YOUTH MATERIALS FOR 50 CENTS APIECE. The Skybrary’s graphic novel section went from zero to existent with just fifteen dollars. (Every time I go in there I gush at the cashiers about how great they are, and bless them, they just look mildly embarrassed and tell me my total.) Look into your community’s used book stores and other options—you might be surprised by what you find.

I attended the annual Texas Library Association conference this year and walked out with heaps of free, beautiful books, many of them signed. Again, this isn’t an option for everyone. If you can’t go, see if you know someone who does—it’s easy to get into a book-grabbing frenzy on the exhibit hall floor, only to come down later with the free-stuff equivalent of buyer’s regret. If you know librarians or teachers who have recently been to a conference, they may be happy to offload extra books on you (especially a few months later, when they’ve finally quit pretending that they’re going to read them all).

used book shopping

TOTAL SPENT ON BOOKS: $73.50 (not counting the conference, which I attended for school)

TOTAL START-UP COSTS: $319.90, leaving me $180.10 for book purchases the rest of the year. (Which, with my thrifty book-sourcing, will go a very long way–and, as I’ve more than doubled the original library’s holdings, can be minimal and neatly spaced out throughout the next semesters.)

That’s it! Questions? Something to share? Leave a comment below!

It was raining. The whisk was lonely.

It was raining. The whisk was lonely.


One thought on “How to DIY a library: the ingredients

  1. Pingback: Cataloging and the startling beauty of organization | The Skybrary

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