Saturday, February 27, 2016

Gifts nobody wants: The state of the art in dealing with unwanted donations

Jonathan P. Bell
INFO 266
February 27, 2016

O'Hare, S. & Smith, A. (2011). Gifts nobody wants: The state of the art in dealing with unwanted donations. Kansas Library Association College and University Libraries Section Proceedings, 1(1), 66-86.

Gifts to the library can create unintended problems that end up costing excessive staff time and resources. In libraries today, traditional print resources compete with other information services for space and attention. Unnecessary donated items can therefore diminish the collection's value and accessibility. According to O'Hare and Smith, some “gifts… are more trouble than they are worth.” In this article the authors: 1) review why we should be watchful over gifts-in-kind, 2) identify potential problematic gifts, and 3) recommend policies for dealing with library donations.

Negative publicity about destruction of deselected books from a collection can be a public relations nightmare for libraries. Not all materials are worth preserving, but the public doesn’t understand that. Instead of tossing items into the trash, non-profits and for-profits are taking on deselected books for new audiences, such as prisoner libraries and resale sites. This has not been without controversy. Inappropriate “surplus sales” have been conducted whereby books or archival materials are removed from collections and sold for the purpose of raising development funds or back filling budget shortfalls. In response, library and archival organizations are now writing policy guidelines for gifts. These are needed especially in this time of growing dependence on private funding, cultivation of donors, and the attitude that the donor is never wrong.

The authors argue that “a gifts policy is the best way to deal with these issues.” A well-written policy should say: 1) who can ask for and accept gifts, 2) that gifts become sole property of the library and can be removed, 3) the protocol for deselecting items from the collection.

The authors identify seven types of "donation situations" that can cause problems for library collections and archives.
  • Gifts you don’t need - Publications of high quality and some cultural significance, like National Geographic, are not as valuable as donors might believe. Truth is, the library may already have copies or may prefer the digital version, or simply may not care for it. Telling potential donors this news is often difficult because they assign sentimental value to items that may otherwise be useless to the library. Taking a cue from  MIT, the authors recommend that libraries develop a gift policy that clearly specifies items not desired. For unwanted donations already in the collection, the authors propose three ways to remove such items: 1) recycling the material at a paper recycler, 2) re-purposing print materials into arts and crafts projects, 3) online sales (though it might run contrary to the library’s mission and cause drama).  
  • Gifts that stink, literally and figuratively - Some gift books stink because they’re old and moldy. Some “stink” because of “questionable provenance,” meaning they may have been wrongly or even illegally acquired by the donor. Rejecting the former simply because of the conditions may be shortsighted, but may also prevent unwanted or unsafe items from being added to the collection. Rejecting the latter is a way to prevent lawsuits. Provenance concerns relating to stolen cultural artifacts apply similarly to problem gifts that “stink.”
  • Gifts with strings attached - Libraries should be extremely scrutinizing of gifts with special instructions. The authors discuss an instance where a sought-after journal to be “deposited” in a university library came with the caveat to hire the journal’s editor as faculty. When a falling out between the editor and university took place, the editor attempted to take a job at another university and take the journal archive with him. A lawsuit ensued over the definition of “deposited” -- did it mean "temporarily hold" or did it mean "become the owner" of the journals? In a settlement, the two universities arranged for micro-filming at the original university and ownership transfer to the new university. The lack of clarity in the first strings attached led to litigation. As the author note, “The library should clearly establish any restrictions or special conditions attached to a gift from the start.” Strings attached can also relate to copying. Libraries should clearly spell out the copyright limitations before accepting gifts. Some donors ask for restricted access to donated archival materials on account of privacy concerns. The institution has to balance the donor's request with the need to provide equitable access.
  • Re-gifted gifts - Getting rid of old books by offloading them en masse onto the library is almost always going to waste staff resources, no matter how well intentioned. As the authors note, “one man’s trash just may be another man’s trash.” The re-gifted items may actually cost more to catalog and process than they’re worth. Worse examples are re-gifted materials that are irrelevant or inappropriate to the local context. The authors point out instances where international librarians have found skiing instruction manuals in Zimbabwe, and books found in South Africa from Jim Crow era-America depicting racist caricatures of African Americans. Donors should check with libraries first to see if particular materials are desired. This gives staff an opportunity to assess the quality and content of proposed gifts.
  • Gifts with murky proof of ownership - Libraries should do their best to determine provenance of donated items before accepting them. Staff needs to be aware of differences between abandoned property, old loans, and undocumented property. Archives often have undocumented items because of: 1) loose early archival practices, 2) inconsistent standards, 3) reliance on volunteers, 4) chumminess between donors and the institution’s board, and 5) desire of staff to build collections at any cost. In response, Kansas and Missouri have enacted laws to address ownership ambiguities in archival collections. The measures are necessary to prevent archives from enduring costly litigation and to allow institutions to dispose of items whose original status or ownership remain unclear.
  • Mistaken gifts - Sometimes donors have an item more valuable than they know. The authors relay a story of a 12-year old boy named Edward Low who dug up a sandstone tablet with old etchings in West Virginia in 1943. Decades later, Low, now an adult, took the tablet to an historical society for interpretation. After three months, the curator offered to buy it. It was pre-historic and valued at $200,000. Low instead negotiated a lifetime membership and an “indefinite loan” to the historical society for display. When Low tried to reclaim the tablet to donate it to a museum, the historical society rejected his ownership claim. Low said he loaned it, the historical society said it was a gift. The lack of ownership transference documents led to litigation that continued even after Low’s death. The moral of the story is that libraries and archives must conduct gift transactions using paperwork clearly describing the item and ownership transfer to prevent these scenarios.
  • Gifts that might actually be loaners, and vice versa - Archival terms such as “permanent loan” compound the problem of gifts versus long-term loans. The authors point out one instance where historical property was donated to a collection by a parent on behalf his adult son. Years later the son attempted to sue for possession but he lost; the court pointed out that he knew of the gift back then but took no action until after the statute of limitations expired. The author also point out the case in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unequivocally deposited his papers at a Boston University archive. Years after MLK's assassination the King Estate attempted to sue for ownership and possession of the works. They lost because records clearly showed it was not a loan but a gift outright. Other similar cases are summarized. Libraries should know that courts typically fall on the side of documentation and correspondence clearly describing the transference of ownership to the new owner.

In summary, a library needs a well-crafted gifts policy to prevent the kind of problem gifts and “donation situations” as outlined above. A well-crafted policy takes into account these dimensions and is written such that it’s “short, readily available, and unambiguous -- clear and specific language is necessary.” The deselection process should be transparent and accessible to both staff and users. Lastly, a right to dispose of items should be spelled out in the policy.

The article was an informative and at times amusing read that described the issue of problem gifts clearly and convincingly. The authors do a good job of critically summarizing this issue using a variety of sources ranging from case law, to LIS and archival research, to blogs and news coverage. I got a sense that they're experts in the relatively strange field of unwanted library donations research. For that reason, I found their analysis insightful and authoritative. The seven problem situations are culled from real world examples from across the world. Likewise, their proposed policies to address problem gifts are adapted from existing institutions' policies that work. Because the article was published in 2011, I'm curious to see what the authors (or other scholars) would describe as "the state of the art" five years later in the area of unwanted donations.


  1. It does sound like a fun read! And I'm not sure if our policy is based in part on this article, but I do know we have very clearly spelled out DO ACCEPTs and DON'T ACCEPTs on our donor form for very similar reasons as you've outlined here.

    1. The do's and don'ts guidelines seem to be quite helpful for libraries!