What Should You do with Your Books After Crossing the Digital Divide?

If you’re in San Francisco, you might consider following in the footsteps of the SF Public Library, who just donated 130 thousand books to the Internet Archive.

Like most public libraries, the SFPL hold a book sale every year as part of their funding efforts. They sell off old and unused books from the collection and they sell any and all books, videos, movies, etc that was donated by library patrons.

There’s usually stuff left over after the sale, and this year the Internet Archive got the dregs of the sale. This was the second time for the IA, and they ended up with enough books to fill a warehouse. They’ve  catalogued about a third of the mass and found 20 thousand titles that the IA didn’t already have. The IA plan to scan and upload any book that they don’t already have and then save the book itself in their Physical Archive.

If you would like to clear out your shelves, I suspect that it would be a little awkward to donate the books to the IA. But you can instead donate them to the Salvation Army, a local charity shop, or your local library. Most have yearly sales and thanks to falling tax revenues I’d bet most are desperate for funds.

That’s what I did when I cleared off my bookshelves a couple months back. As you can probably guess, I had crossed over to a digital only reading habit years ago. There were books on my shelves that I hadn’t touched for years, and in fact the only books that were used regularly were the stacks of paperbacks that accrued in various places (next to the bed, by the toilet, etc).

Most of my books were discarded by my library and sold in the yearly sale, so I didn’t think they’d want them again. I ended up giving them all to the various charities that have been bugging me for donations.

But I did keep a handful – just the ones that I regard as collectible as well as the ones not available in digital form. For example, I kept all my copies of Shel Silverstein’s books, the boxed set of Calvin & Hobbes comics, and I also kept a bunch of difficult to find books that (barring a pirate deciding to rescue the book) I never expect to see in digital form.

Yes, when someone illegally scans an obscure out of print book I see it as rescuing it, not piracy. I have books held together with rubber bands that if I ever lost I know I would never find another copy.

There’s a reason why some say that obscurity is a greater risk than piracy; one house fire would cost me everything, but a digital copy could last potentially forever.

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Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. DebbyS3 October, 2011

    Our main library has a sales room staffed daily (M-F & Sat) by volunteers. They hold a big monthly sale on the 2nd Saturday of every month ($1 to enter before noon, free after), and twice a year a $5-a-bag sale on Sundays. Funds help fund the library beyond taxpayer funding. There are a lot of thrift stores around town, and used book stores often take trades, so one can get books to scan. Probably hospitals, nursing homes, and even school libraries might take books that are in good condition. I’ve traded in comics I’ve scanned. I do plan to give away books I’ve gotten e-versions of, though there are a lot I’ll save even if I do scan them.

  2. brewster kahle3 October, 2011

    Yes, please do donate your books to the Internet Archive. For larger collections we can try to figure out how to pick them or pay for shipping.

    Thank you for the nice comment.


  3. Peter4 October, 2011

    I’m glad to hear they have a physical archive. There’s a tragedy of the commons at work.

    A digital file will probably last longer than a single copy of a print book. But a hundred well-distributed physical copies of a book will preserve a piece of writing far longer than a million copies stored in the same format, in the same “cloud” architecture. I worry that knowledge will be lost for future generations if too many people abandon their libraries.

    The best way to preserve a book for a really long time is to replicate it, not just scan it.

    1. Nate Hoffelder4 October, 2011

      That argument is exactly why the IA preserve the paper book as well.

  4. Peter4 October, 2011

    Oh, sorry, that’s not an attack on the digital archive itself.

    Just the somewhat short-sighted idea of “going digital” for individual readers.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Nate Hoffelder4 October, 2011

      I have to disagree with you on the “individual readers” part. I had already gone digital, so there wasn’t a point of having the paper books clutter up my residence. Yes, some need to be preserved, but a lot of what I own isn’t worth it and much has already been preserved.

  5. Thomas Hamilton16 October, 2011

    How does a person donate books to the IA? I keep looking through the internet but can not locate how to. I have a small collection of books that that I have collected over the years and I just dread them being thrown out. I am in the Sacramento, Ca area.

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