The story behind the journeys of donated books

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LENOX Ever wonder what happens to a donated book?

Some end up in libraries. Those in poor shape often are discarded. But the rest can wind up in interesting and unusual places: jails and prisons, schools, doctors' offices, veterans homes, even foreign countries.

Donated books keep on giving, no matter how many times they change hands or where they end up.

"The books just don't go away," said Robert Ireland, director of development at the Lenox Library. "They don't just get thrown in a Dumpster. They actually have a life cycle."

Sometimes, many books have life cycles.

"A good book may end up with three or four owners," said Nancy Cohen, volunteer coordinator of the Lenox Library's annual summer book sale, the nonprofit library association's biggest yearly fundraiser.

Used books come from donors, and at the Lenox Library, those donations are stored in a room in a small building located at the back of Boston University's Tanglewood Institute on West Street. On a recent visit, the room contained boxes and boxes of books from every possible genre, "everything from 'Band of Brothers' to 'MacBeth' to 'The 9/11 Commission Report,'" Ireland said.

Most of the inventory in this room will be offered for sale at the library's annual August book fair, which is in its 23rd year.

Between 9,000 and 10,000 books are go on sale at the annual book sale, according to Cohen.

The books that don't sell go on journeys.

"What happens is, we have a disbursement of books," Ireland said. "Some stay within the county. They go to Solider On!, they go to the jail, and some of them find their way to waiting rooms at the hospital, as well as other health care facilities throughout the county.

"Outside the county, books are donated to an organization that donates to the state and federal prison system. The sale also has a global reach because we donate to an organization that takes the books and sends them overseas to the Philippines, to Haiti and other developing nations around the world."

The Lenox Library is not the only Berkshire County library that distributes donated books.

The Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield has three book sales a year (though the latest one has been postponed), and it donates books to organizations like food pantries and health care facilities, according to executive director Alex Raczkowski.

"Tons of our books end up going to Goodwill," he said. "The spirit of the library is that we're about building a better world, about having an informed community, whether it's a community that's local or anyone who is using a library around the world."

One of the used-book dealers who picks up used books after the Lenox Library's annual book sale is Ezekial Books of Manchester, N.H. In an email message, owner John Walsh said he keeps between 20 and 30 percent of the books he receives in Lenox to sell to customers on websites like Amazon or Alibris. He donates about half of the rest to local organizations.

"Most of these go into donation bins to benefit various local nonprofit organizations," he wrote.

About 10 to 15 percent, including all the children's books he receives, go to local schools for their own book drives.

"There is also a guy I know who exports to Nigeria who takes the children's books to send there," Walsh wrote.

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Prison Book Program

Another beneficiary of the books donated to the Lenox Library is the Prison Book Program, a volunteer collective based in Wellesley that provides books to inmates incarcerated in correctional facilities across the country. The program began in 1972, out of a bookstore in Cambridge, and it provides 10,000 books to institutions in 42 states, according to program member Pam Boiros.

"We're probably the oldest and best funded of all the organizations," Boiros said.

The service the organization provides from the outside is appreciated by those on the inside.

"What keeps our volunteers coming back is the feedback and the direct benefits from the people who are incarcerated," Boiros said. "It's not uncommon to get a letter stating, 'I have no one on the outside and you're the only one who cares.' ... Good news spreads fast. We'll get letters from prisoners who said, 'My cellmate heard you send books to people and if you have any, send them inside.'"

The program sends books to inmates by request.

"It's all individual contacts from individual prisoners," Boiros said. "Some people get exposed to a book for the first time in prison, which was eye-opening to me because I grew up in a house full of books."

The feedback that the Prison Book Program receives from inmates is poignant.

"I am a death row inmate and we can't leave our unit to go to the library or anywhere else," one inmate wrote. "So there's not much to do and most guys just watch TV or play games ... I don't do either. Reading is my way of escaping from here in my mind as when I am reading I forget I am in here. You may think what you do isn't that great but it is."

"I thank you from deep in my heart for making me feel valuable with the books you sent me!!!" wrote another inmate. "The gift of learning is so precious that words can't describe it."

The most popular request is for dictionaries.

"Literacy is a struggle for a lot of people who are incarcerated," Boiros said. Forty percent of the country's inmate population is functionally illiterate, she said.

"You may come across a word you don't know, so a dictionary is a lifeline. We've talked to people who've read the dictionary cover to cover to build their vocabulary."

Other popular books include fiction and educational ones. "GED books are popular," Boiros said.

Others are interesting in genealogy.

"A lot of people are researching their own history," she said.

"We get a fair amount of religious requests. But, we don't really focus on that because the Bible is the one free book you can get" in prison.

Ireland, who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine before joining the Lenox Library, said the spread of literacy is the most important function that donated books provide.

"When we talk about greater sustainability goals globally, literacy is always on the agenda, right?" he said. "As a national Peace Corps volunteer, that resonated with me."

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at or 413-496-6224.


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