Donations: a double-edged sword

Let’s back up to a few entries ago when you wrote that outreach e-mail. If all went well, you’ve got donations pouring in right now. If all is going realistically, some of those aren’t actually a great fit for your collection. But help! These are donations! If you don’t accept them, won’t somebody be upset?


(image credit:

Our donors have been radically generous, and the Skybrary’s collection has more than doubled as a result. I was invited to go through the weeded materials of a local high school library and cherrypick hundreds of barely read middlegrade books; heaps of librarians and library school alumni donated brand-new books from conferences (see ARCs tomorrow). Many were casual and realistic about their donations. “If these aren’t good for your school, you can just give them to Goodwill,” I heard more than once over boxes containing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and graduate-level information theory textbooks. But some donors were less clear, or simply left books without a face-to-face meeting.

The inevitable moment I realized I needed clear a donation policy came when I arrived at the school one day to find no fewer than five heaping boxes of books parked in the library. Hooray!, I thought. Only to realize that under those nice new copies of Harry Potter were stacks of old adult horror books nibbled by mice and speckled with mold.

Also a lawnmower manual and some outdated travel books.

None of the school staff had seen the donor come in, and nobody in the community would ‘fess up. The main ethical concern was what to do with the books that weren’t suitable for our use. What if the donor, or the donor’s kids, came into the library and saw that their donated books weren’t on the shelf? Would they be upset? Would they ask to have them back? It was clear that my laissez-faire donation policy wasn’t going to fly much longer. To safeguard against future ambiguity, I wrote the following donation policy:

The Skybrary thrives on book donations! Donated materials are subject to the same criteria as regularly selected materials. As such, donated items must: be of student interest, be age-appropriate, and be in good condition. Materials not chosen for inclusion under these criteria, or that are duplicates of books already held in the Skybrary, will be donated to Goodwill or another charitable organization, given to the art teacher to be used in projects, or placed in the “free” box.

Your collection development policy is going to be your best friend. You’ve put a lot of thought into what you want in your library—if someone has given you a book that doesn’t fit (or even runs counter to) that standard, you aren’t obligated to keep it. In fact, to serve your library’s mission, you shouldn’t keep it. To protect yourself from donor dismay, include in your collection development policy a clear section on donation standards and what to do with donations that don’t suit it.

Be aware that donations can come in all forms! One family asked to donate $500 worth of new books to the Skybrary—I just had to tell them what to purchase.  Always have a running wishlist, and be cognizant of what you do want as much as what you don’t. With a policy in place, donations can become a fruitful, useful component of your collection.

(This entry feels boring, so here is a joke. Q: What was Old MacDonald’s nickname in the Army? A: G-I-G-I-Joe!) (This is the only joke I can consistently remember. I learned it from Highlights magazine when I was seven.) (Now if I meet you at a dinner party, you will already know my joke; CURSES; WHAT WAS I THINKING?)


Sex in the library (books)! How our students helped me develop a plan to handle mature content in their Skybrary

Now that you’re tapped into the librarian hivemind and know all of the great and ground-breaking titles, it’s time to buckle down and really consider your audience. This was a unique challenge for me at Skybridge: our school serves students from grades 6-12. This runs the gamut from smart but very (emotionally) young ten-year-olds to 18-year-olds with part-time jobs and coffee addictions. Obviously, books for one age group might not be of interest, or appropriate, for the other. This is what we call having a dual-audience library.

skybrary twilight shelf

What do public libraries do?

In a public library, all library content is available to all patrons.* It’s detailed in the American Library Association Bill of Rights—the librarian’s job is to allow everyone access to all information. A parent may tell his eight-year-old that he may not check out Sex Criminals. However, the librarian may not do so.

It’s different in a school library. For one, the parent isn’t present, and many schools have privacy policies so that parents may not even know what their child has taken out. Also, because the library collection has been selected especially for youth (as opposed to a public library, which caters to all ages), there’s an expectation that the materials in the library already are youth-appropriate. In making that collection development policy, the librarian is putting her implicit seal of approval on each book. There’s no expectation that she’s read every book, but her collection development should be so intentional that she could stand behind every single book in a challenge (and she certainly wouldn’t put Sex Criminals in her collection).

How can you properly serve users at all stages along this development spectrum? There are a few options:

  1. Shelve all materials for all ages together, and trust students to choose material appropriate for them developmentally.
  2. Shelve all materials together, but label “mature” content (i.e., content that you’ve identified as not appropriate in your collection development policy) with stickers or other signifiers and only allow older students to borrow these materials.
  3. Keep “mature” content in a secured closet or other locked area that older users may access with teacher permission.
  4. Do not keep mature content in the library at all; students may access such material at home or from a public library.

Frankly, none of them sound great. The first two put an awful lot of trust in eleven-year-olds to not hang out in the library at lunch and giggle over naughty bits; the third stigmatizes material that may be developmentally important for high schoolers (like “first time” sex narratives, or stories in which characters fight to recover from sexual abuse) in the manner of the XXX back room of a video store. And that fourth one—the so-called safe route? It cripples your collection by making it irrelevant to teens who may not be able to get that information elsewhere, thus gutting your own mission statement.

Not the vibe we're going for. (image credit:

Not the vibe we’re going for. (image credit:

To solve this dilemma, my director and I set aside documentation and philosophy and took a more radical, direct approach: we talked directly to the students.

Enter Oleanna, Rose and Tav,* three of our high school girls and most vocal readers (and, as a result of this discussion, the newly minted Student Library Council). *Names changed to PROTECT THE CHILDREN.

After about an hour, the council ultimately decided this:

  • The Skybrary will contain material suited for teens only, which can be borrowed only by high school students, as well as middle school students whose parents have given written permission.
    • This allows developmentally-appropriate students to have access, and protects this material from being challenged by the parents of younger students
  • The material will be kept on a shelf in the office marked “Mature Readers.”
    • The school’s office is a walk-through room directly outside of the library, and is almost always overseen by the codirectors or an administrator. This allows the administration to enforce the high-school only rule.
    • Additionally, because this is a high-traffic space, it is more difficult for kids to clump up and giggle over material, thus decreasing the self-consciousness of those who may want to borrow it.
Beautiful, Orpheus-inspired book for high schoolers; too much sex and teen drinking to endorse it for middle schoolers.

Beautiful, Orpheus-inspired book for high schoolers; too much sex and teen drinking to endorse it for middle schoolers.

The council also suggested that some books with sexual content can remain in the main collection if sex is discussed abstractly, or if the writer employs the “fade to black” narrative lapse during the actual sex scene (such as in Twilight or Divergent, where the sex act occurs in the timeline of the book but is not described for the reader). Books that discuss sex explicitly would only be appropriate for the mature readers section. Books that take a casual, more adult attitude toward sex (as opposed to treating sex with the great importance that many “first time” narratives do) are questionably appropriate for the library and will be handled on a case-by-case basis. (Fifty Shades of Grey and Lolita? Right out.)

Both the director and I came away exceedingly impressed with the intelligence, eloquence and depth of consideration of these young women. Sometimes, when puzzling over how to best serve your audience, it’s powerful and formative to break out of your own brain-box and talk to that audience.  Remember, they’re just as invested in your final product, if not more! And valued, invested users will become your greatest advocates, and do more to build a community than you and your books could ever do alone.

How have your students changed your library for the better? Share below!

Awash in a sea of books? You need a collection development policy!

All right. Now you’ve got donated books flooding in like that little Dutch boy got tired of holding his finger in the dam, and your head is starting to spin. You bought all the stuff you need. You have books and a mission statement. So why doesn’t it feel like a library?

(image credit:

(image credit:

Because, as you now know, a library is more than a bunch of books on a shelf. It’s an intentional and curated information collection that has a specific audience and a purpose. This all sounds great on paper*, but all of a sudden, you’re running into problems and questions. What do you do when somebody donates a book that’s out of date or in bad condition? If your collection is for elementary schoolers, do you buy Make Love Like a Porn Star? If you have a commitment to diversity, what does diversity mean—will you equally represent the perspectives of disenfranchised minorities and the KKK?


What you need is a document that translates your philosophy and mission into concrete actions that you’ll take in selecting your books. This is called a COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT POLICY.

Developing a collection development policy was, for me, like trying to pull a magician’s scarf from a hat. Every time I thought I was done, I realized that there still one more thing that needed straightening out. So don’t be alarmed if yours expands! This is a guiding document that will form the backbone of your collection; it’s great to be as detailed as possible. But let’s start with the basics.


  1. Your selection philosophy: what kinds of books you will select and why
  2. Sources you will use to guide your selection
  3. Your library’s purpose and methods in selecting controversial material, and what you will do if that material is challenged (i.e., if someone attempts to ban or remove the book)
  4. How you will handle donations (including: your requirements for quality of donations, and what you will do with donated materials that do not meet these requirements)
  5. Your weeding policy: which materials you will get rid of, why, and how often

A good collection development policy does a couple of things: it guarantees that your collection adheres to your library’s mission statement, it protects you in case of a book challenge (libraryspeak for “someone asks to remove or ban a book in your library”), and helps you keep your library current, relevant, and user-centered.

There are lots of great collection development policies available online. The one I developed for the Skybrary is as follows. I’ll be frank: this is my baby, but it’s not the most scintillating read. If you’re working on your own coll dev policy or other project, though, I hope it’ll be a great resource. Read on!

I. Selection philosophy (or: how we determine what goes in the Skybrary):

The mission of the Skybrary is to promote education, information literacy, and reading culture. To that end, material in the collection should do at least one of the following:

  1. Support curriculum. Each semester, the Skybrarian will meet with the teachers and look through the offered courses, and strive to provide materials that will support and enrich course offerings. (For example: biographies of Amelia Earhart and Joan of Arc in conjunction with a women’s history class.)
  2. Support information use: maintain a current collection of reference materials, both in print and digitally.
  3. Support student interest. Education does not stop outside of the classroom! Through Google surveys and conversations with students, the Skybrarian should keep a running list of topics that Skybridge students are passionate about, and strive to provide books that support those passions. (For example: books on street art, edible plants, the Yakuza, etc.)
  4. Support passion for reading by including fun, engaging, and/or entertaining material that students want to read. The job of the Skybrarian is not to “improve” students by pushing the classics on them. If students learn to love reading, they will discover worlds all on their own. This includes letting them read what theyare interested in—if this is a Minecraft novelization or a Monster High book, more power to ‘em! The Skybrarian will determine student interest through ongoing conversations with students, a book request clipboard kept in the library, and a Google survey conducted no less than once per year.

II. Criteria for selection:

All books in the Skybrary should:

  • Be appropriate for the age, emotional development, ability level, learning styles, and social development of students.
  • Be of student interest.
  • Be in good physical condition.
  • Be current and factually accurate.
  • Not promote the oppression of, disenfranchisement of, or prejudice against others.

Breaking down the criteria:

  • Appropriate for ability level and learning styles
    • The Skybrary should offer books in a wide range of reading levels and formats to accommodate student need. As the budget is very small, digital and audio versions of books can only be made available on an as-needed basis, but should be made available for interested students.
  • Of student interest
    • Consider: is this book of interest to students ages 10-16? Just because a student can read a text doesn’t necessarily mean that it is relevant to their personal or academic interests. Equipment operating manuals, wry comedies about dating in one’s 40s, and old college accounting textbooks are a few examples. However, our students do have a wide variety of interests! Use your best judgment.
  • Be current and factually accurate
    • Outdated travel guides, business books from before the age of e-mail, anthropological texts written before the civil rights era, and similarly obsolete texts are not only unhelpful to students, but potentially harmful. In order to build information literacy, the Skybrary collection must be a trustworthy and reliable source of correct and accurate information.
  • In good condition
    • Books should be free of mold and insects, have intact covers and pages, and be free (or mostly free) of highlighting and writing. If the Skybrary receives a newer replacement copy of an old volume, that volume will be removed from the collection.

Diversity and books on controversial subjects:

In order to assist our student population in becoming global citizens by exposing them to a wide range of ideas, and in order to serve the needs of our entire student body, the Skybrary is proud to offer books that engage with diverse and controversial subject matter. To quote another great school library: “Selection of these materials will be based on the objectivity of the information they contain and the necessity of maintaining a diverse collection that represents various viewpoints, thus encouraging users to engage in critical analysis and to make judgments based on intellectual evaluation.

For more information on library selection policies in general, please see the following documents from the American Library Association:

―Evaluating Library Collections: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights‖ at: tinglibrary.cfm

―Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights‖ at: tycollection.cfm

–from the excellent Pineview High School Library Collection Development Policy:

III. Resources for selection:

In addition to conversations with students and teachers, Google surveys to gauge student interest, and the book request clipboard, the Skybrarian may use the following publications and bibliographies to guide material selection:

Review publications:

  •             Booklist
  •             Horn Book
  •             School Library Journal
  •             Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA)

Lists and Awards:

  •             ALA Top Ten
  •             YALSA Best of the Year/Best of the Best
  •             Printz Award
  •             Lonestar List
  •             TAYSHA List
  •             VOYA Top 10
  •             Margaret A. Edwards Award
  •             Coretta Scott King Award
  •             Pura Belpre Award
  •             National Book Award

Other resources:

IV. Donations:

The Skybrary thrives on book donations! Donated materials are subject to the same criteria as regularly selected materials. As such, donated items must: be of student interest, be age-appropriate, and be in good condition. Materials not chosen for inclusion under these criteria, or that are duplicates of books already held in the Skybrary, will be donated to Goodwill or another charitable organization, given to the art teacher to be used in projects, or placed in the “free” box.

V. Weeding (or, removing books from the Skybrary):

In order to keep our collection current, relevant, and powerfully serving our mission, the Skybrarian will “weed” the collection, which is the process of removing books from the collection.

Ideally, the Skybrarian will follow the CREW method of collection development: “Continuous Review, Evaluation and Weeding.” This means that the Skybrarian is constantly engaging with her collection and keeping it current and relevant. If there is no acting Skybrarian, the administration or volunteers should weed no less than once per school year.

In weeding, the Skybrarian or administration determines what to deselect using the MUSTI(E ) criteria:

M=     Misleading: factually inaccurate
U=      Ugly: worn beyond mending or rebinding
S=       Superseded by a new edition of by a much better book on the subject
T=       Trivial: of no discernible literary or scientific merit
I=        Irrelevant to the needs and interests of the library’s community
(E=       Elsewhere: the material is easily obtainable from another library)*


*E is in parentheses here because the Skybrary is not part of a school or public library system, and therefore items are not easily obtainable by this library from another library.

Weeded books will be donated to Goodwill or another charitable organization, given to the art teacher to be used in projects, or placed in the “free” box.

VI. Mature Readers:

The Skybrary is dedicated to supporting readers along the full spectrum of its community’s age range: grades 6-12. Some materials developmentally appropriate and/or necessary for older teens, however, may contain themes inappropriate for our youngest demographic. These books include texts that thoughtfully explore: “first time” sexual encounters, drug and alcohol use, relationship violence and/or sexual abuse, depression, and other topics that our older teen readers may be curious about and need a safe method of exploring vicariously through reading, and/or may be experiencing for the first times themselves and need the advice, solace, positive modeling and solidarity found in literature about people experiencing the same thing.

Therefore, rather than exclude the materials from the library altogether, these high-school-appropriate materials are given a call number beginning with “M” and placed on the MATURE READERS shelf in the office.

What designates a book “Mature”?

Consider the audience. If the material presented in the text, and the manner in which it is presented, both gives you pause and has no educational, social or psychological value for middle school students, place it on the Mature shelf.

Topics that may flag a book as “Mature” include:

  • explicit depictions of sex or heated sexual activity (The Difference Between You and Me; In the Shadow of Blackbirds)
  • a casual attitude toward sexual activity (A Song for Ella Grey)
  • drug use by protagonists (Looking for Alaska)
  • adult depictions of depression and suicidal tendencies (The Belljar)
  • sexual violence or other extreme violence (Speak)

If the Skybrarian is unfamiliar with a book, the website offers age-appropriateness ratings by parents, teachers and librarians. It is a good, though not infallible, resource. also lists the intended readers’ age for youth and children’s books (as determined by the publisher). Any books rated age 14 or older may be assigned to the Mature Readers section unless the Skybrarian decides otherwise.

Are all books containing this content appropriate for the “Mature” shelf?

No. Though high schoolers are relatively more developmentally advanced than junior high students, there’s still a wealth of reading material pitched explicitly toward adult sexual, psychological, and life experience. This material does not belong in a youth collection, even if the students are academically able to read the text.

The best example of this is 50 Shades of Grey, which multiple jokester students nominated in the “What do you want to see in the Skybridge Library?” survey in spring 2015. A respectful first-time sexual experience narrative is developmentally appropriate for this age group. A trilogy focused on the darker, nuanced elements of kink and sexual politics is not emotionally or developmentally appropriate. Use your best judgment.

Some guiding questions to determine if a book is “Mature,” or just too adult for the collection:

  • Does this book contain educational, social or psychological value for high school students?
  • Who is the publisher? Did this book come out from a teen imprint, or an adult imprint?
  • The Skybrary contains plenty of books from adult imprints (for example, Of Mice and Men), but checking the imprint can serve as an indicator of intended audience when evaluating a book with darker or more adult themes.
  • What do other youth educators and librarians think? Check Goodreads or ask around on the YALSA list-serve if you’re uncertain.

Who can borrow a “Mature” book?

Mature Readers material circulates normally to all high schoolers, as well as to middle schoolers whose parents give written permission. For middle schoolers, permission may be given on a general, rather than per-book, basis.

Some Skybridge students take a mix of high school and middle school classes. For these students, use of the Mature Readers section may be determined by the student’s Composition class level, or at the administrator’s discretion.

Mature Readers material is subject to the same circulation and renewal policies as non-Mature books.


Questions? Comments? What’s in your collection development policy? Share below!

The question you were afraid to ask: how do I know which books are good?


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If you’re my soulmate/long-lost twin/time-traveling clone,* you probably got into youth librarianship because of a deep love of young adult literature. So the question, “What books should I get?” isn’t even one you’re asking. Of course you know what to get. How could you not know? You just… know. What books shouldn’t you get is more like it! There’s Shannon Hale and John Green and Madeleine George and Ursula K. LeGuin and Sherman Alexie and J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket and Rainbow Rowell and Maggie Stiefvater and THAT IS NOT EVEN GETTING INTO THE NONFICTION and while you’re rhapsodizing over there, I’m going to talk to these nice people about resources they can use to find really great books for their students.

*If the last, can we start sharing work duties? That would be excellent!

  1. Librarians as resources
    1. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) list-serve. Absolutely sign up for this—not only will you get e-mails about resources, great books, activities, booklists and more, but you have the opportunity to be in conversation with YA librarians all across the country.
    2. Follow YA librarians on Twitter! Great accounts to know: @YALSA, @SLJournal, @aasl, @jenniferlagarde, @GwynethJones, and @plemmonsa, to name just a few of my favorite library Twitter gurus out of a great, great many. Librarians are wonderfully active on social media—follow the hashtag #librarylife to find more.

The more you participate in—or are even just lurking on—the conversation, the greater your awareness of trends, titles and beloved books will be.

  1. Lists to look out for:
    1. YALSA’s annual “Best of the Year” and “Best of the Best” book and media award lists:
    2. The Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) booklists:
  2. Review publications and websites
    1. The Horn Book: this publication is pure gold, publishing quality reviews of quality books for children and young adults.
    2. Booklist: review publication of the ALA. Requires account for full access:
    3. School Library Journal, the world’s largest reviewer of books and multimedia for youth and teens:
    4. Kirkus Reviews:
    5. & honestly? Seems pretty basic, but I love Goodreads. Reviews and lists are user-created (rather than written by professionals), so take with a grain of salt, but their UI is really friendly, and they have a wealth of information:
  3. Awards
    1. All of the following awards are given to books of merit for young people. A librarian worth her salt will at least be aware of these lists, if not have the winners in her library:
      1. Michael L. Printz Award
      2. Margaret A. Edwards Award
      3. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
      4. Pura Belpre Award: for Latino literature for children and young adults
      5. Coretta Scott King Award: from the ALA, this award recognizes “outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values” (
      6. Stonewall Book Award—Mike Morgan and Larry Romans Children and Young Adults’ Literature Award: sponsored by the ALA’s LGBT Round Table
      7. Tayshas—this is an honorary YA booklist sponsored by the Texas Library Association’s (TxLA) Young Adult Round Table (with unfortunate acronym YART). Not in Texas? Check with your state library association and see what they offer!
  1. Your community
    1. This sounds terribly obvious, but: if you want to know what your students want to read, ask them. Before beginning the project I wrote a simple Google Survey and had the math teacher administer it for me. Each student was asked the following:
      1. If you could add anything to the library, what would it be?
      2. How many books do you read per week?
      3. Which genres do you most like to read?

And that was that. I generated a huge list of desired titles, authors, series and nonfiction topics. In addition, I had a sense of who my community was and what they wanted.

One of the best pieces of librarianship advice I’ve ever received is to keep a wishlist. As you look through these lists, take notes! This will guide you in your purchasing ventures. Also, in the rare event that you come into a financial windfall, such as your principal chucking money at you at the end of the fiscal year (or a lovely and unexpected donation!), you’ll want to be ready to say, decisively, “Yes, I want these titles,” before that money gets snapped up by the football team.

Did I miss anything? Share your favorite resources or library Twitter handles below:

How to get books #1: the outreach e-mail

I was lucky in beginning this project because of my community resources. I had a space and an administration excited to work with me, for one. Additionally, because I’m a graduate student, I had connections in three graduate departments passionate about books: English, creative writing, and the library school.

The list-serves for these departments were my first resource for soliciting book donations. While I didn’t have access to the mailing lists for all three, I was able to get in touch with people who did, and the word rippled out from there.

The e-mail was simple, and looked like this:

Dear [whomever],

Planning to move this summer? Going through a major literary destash? Don’t haul your books to Half Price–help build a library at my school!

I teach English part-time at a tiny, wacky private school out by Dripping Springs called Skybridge Academy. It’s a very small alternative school for grades 6-12. The principal’s given me permission to try to scrap together a working school library. So I’d love to collect donated books!

Our fledgling library would especially love fiction and nonfiction for grades 6-12, but would be thrilled with anything–please get in touch, and I’ll take your old books of your hands.



[my title/degree + graduation year]

It worked well, for these reasons: it’s short, it’s personable, it appeals to the reader’s interest, and I’m not asking for money.* In fact, I’m offering to do work for the reader. To have someone save you the trouble of a trip to Goodwill, and get to feel like you contributed to a cause you believe in (kids reading books)? Beautiful.

(*I never asked for money. Astoundingly, someone once offered some, but I—gratefully—declined it. It felt complicated.)

I’ll give you one guess who responded the best (and this adorable picture to look at while you do).


Or you could just look at this all day. No one would blame you. (image credit:

Or you could just look at this all day. No one would blame you. (image credit:

Librarians. Overwhelmingly, I was flooded with enthusiastic responses from librarians. It’s great fun to speculate about these patterns (the PhDs in the English department receiving the e-mail in the dead of night and clutching their beloved books to their chests in a panic—to part from literature? Nay, never!), but goodness, the library school students and alumni were all over this project. Free books from conferences. Bags of books. Trunkloads of books. Always with caveats and apologies—“I don’t know if these are a good fit for your students”—but also with a readiness and heaps of excitement for the project.

The Skybrary's first donation!

The Skybrary’s first donation! Thanks, Lauren!

This passion was echoed by everyone I reached out to. There’s something irresistibly infectious about a DIY school library. Even if they didn’t have books, people offered money, ideas, help processing and event-planning, and just plain enthusiasm. “What a great project!” became the refrain of my (honestly, already pretty great) summer.

If you aren’t in a library science program, reach out anyway. If there’s no library program at your local university, try the English department. Consider school and public libraries, PTAs, churches and synagogues, high school English teachers. Not everyone may have books for you, and some may even be legally prohibited from donating (city and state governments may have strict guidelines regulating the disposal of resources), but the world is filled with people who

  1. love public service and
  2. love books and
  3. have too many of the latter that they’d love to share in service of the former.

Brainstorm folks who would be nuts about libraries. Represent yourself simply and honestly. “I’m an aspiring librarian, and I’m seeking used books to start a library at XX School.” Let them see your passion, and they’ll respond in kind.

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.

Creating a library on a shoestring budget (or: how to DIY your socks off)

One day, when I was 22, I decided I was going to make my own soap. I was doing a summer internship as a wilderness ranger with the Forest Service, climbing fire towers and learning botany in the field and generally doing all sorts of things that seemed unlikely or impossible. I drove into the nearest town with my laptop, found a handy how-to guide, tentatively whipped up my first batch, and blew my world wide open.
No, not with a chemical explosion (though lye is dangerous; be careful)*. Blew it open with possibility—what couldn’t I make? What couldn’t I do? On golden afternoons home from wilderness spikes, I made bagels, jam, paper, books. I taught myself to whittle old Appalachian toys. Something lost in the 21st-century devaluing of the (traditionally women’s) work in the kitchen and home is the miraculous power of making things with your own hands. For me, it felt like everything had shifted sideways—did I need to buy anything ever again? How had I been tricked into thinking that it was necessary to have someone else make my soap in the first place?
If DIY, thriftiness and craftiness also run deep in your veins, you’re absolutely in the right place. Roll up your sleeves and get cracking! If creating a library on a small budget seems a little more challenging to you, run through the list below. (This Skybrarian recommends a clipboard & freshly sharpened pencil for added confidence, and/or for stabbing naysayers in the eye.)


1. What resources do I already have?
a. The quickest and most heartening question to ask when budget-building feels daunting. When I started, I had a space to work in, some donated shelves, several hundred used books, a laptop, and a supportive administration. (Also, time, passion, and some great podcasts for the hours spent affixing spine labels to books.)
2. Do I really need it?
a. Look to your mission statement, your institution’s mission statement, and your community needs. It would be amazing to have a state-of-the-art 3-D printer and gleaming modern furniture. But those are (really shiny) icing on the cake. Start with the cake. If you want a reading culture, get books. If you want to build literacy, brainstorm lessons and programs. Get to the essentials first. Don’t be afraid to start with the basics; those are (to mix metaphors dreadfully) going to be the foundation for everything else.
b. Consider your scope. It’s easy to think “I need to do X because I see other libraries doing X.” But: do you need an inter-library loan system if you’re not connected to any other libraries? Do you need a cataloging system that works on mobile devices if most of your population lacks mobile devices? Do your research, be smart, and be specific.
3. Can I get it cheaply, used or free?
a. Books: Definitely. Reach out to your community for book donations (see entry on effectively soliciting donations), or run a book drive. Go to thrift stores and used bookshops. Keep your eye out for your library system’s book sales—most systems do this annually, if not more often. Make sure to have a collection development policy in place, as well as a sense of what to buy—just because a book is cheap or free doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your collection, and your students won’t want to use a library filled with musty copies of The Bridges of Madison County.
b. Software and programs: Do you need software with expensive licenses, or can you find freeware that will serve the same purpose? Lots of folks have compiled great lists of free or inexpensive library software—poke around a bit before deciding how to allocate your software budget.
4. Can I make it myself?
a. Avery, Demco, and other suppliers of printable labels are happy to sell you templates for printing on those labels. With a word processing program and a bit of time and patience, you can easily make your own. (I did—I’ll link it on the Resources page.)
b. What else can you DIY? Bookends, shelf labels, cool and crafty displays. Bonus: if you’re in a school, consider engaging the students in your DIY endeavors. The more involved your students are in the creation of the library, the more they feel that the library is their space—increasing their enthusiasm for and use of the library. It’s an all-around win.

You’ve got your space, your mission, and a go-getter attitude. Next up: which materials I decided were necessary, what worked, and what it all cost.

Honey, let's go make a lye-brary!

Honey, let’s go make a lye-brary!

*Always add your lye to water, not vice versa. Just… always.