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Because You Asked

Because You Asked: What Can I Do With Used Reference Books?

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Encyclopedias are quickly becoming obsolete, which makes them harder to donate. Here are some ideas of what to do with your set. 

Dear Recyclebank: I have a set of Britannica encyclopedias that are in very good shape. My problem is, I cannot find anybody who wants them, not even libraries, schools and bookstores. Any ideas? –Debbie S.

Dear Debbie: In the age of Google and Wikipedia, reference books like encyclopedias and dictionaries have become seemingly more obsolete. It seems like you’ve already tried some of the upcycling places that we normally recommend, such as finding a local recipient like a library or school. And in our research we found that, indeed, many book-donation organizations, like the Prison Book Program, specify that they do not accept reference books like encyclopedia.

To help you find a good home for your well-maintained reference books, we came up with a few other options for you to try:
  • Books for Africa collects new and gently used books to stock libraries and schools in Africa. You can ship them or deliver them to their locations in Atlanta, GA. or St. Paul, MN. (And reference books are among the types of titles they’re specifically seeking!)
  • Better World Books has drop-boxes across the country. The books that are donated are sold on their website, and the proceeds help fund literacy programs.
  • is a great resource for more than just books, and will connect you with local organizations that will accept your goods.
  • Your local homeless shelter may want the books. In some cities, shelters are setting up libraries to ensure that the children staying there have access to reading material.
  • Post your books on a buy-and-sell site like Craigslist, or a give-away site like Freecycle.
  • Check with your recycler to see if they accept books for recycling (even though they’re mostly paper, the covers and bindings mean that sometimes they’re not accepted in your curbside bin.)
If you can’t find any way to donate them in their current form, consider using them in a craft or decorating project. We’ve seen ideas like using books as a base for a coffee table or other furniture, making wall art by printing graphic images on reference book pages, and carving a secret compartment into a book. Or search the Internet for some of the myriad ways to create the ever-growing art form of altered books.

While encyclopedias may be a dying breed, hopefully you’ll find a good way for your collection to have a second life, whether it’s on someone else’s bookshelf, or as part of a fun craft project!
Have you had success selling, donating, or repurposing reference books? Share your story in the comments below. 
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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.

  • Rachael T. 3 months ago
    Thank you for this post - a wealth of useful information and resources!
    A few of my favorite ways to recycle reference books (or any books/magazines) locally:
    - Find a little free library in your area. In my neighborhood there are three of them within walking distance, and I make a habit of dropping off magazines and books while I'm taking my daily walks with the dog.
    -If you utilize the app/website NextDoor, you can post a listing for your neighbors (& nearby neighborhoods) to see if anyone has use for your books.
    Both of these options are free, simple (no shipping needed) and local!
  • Debra B. 3 months ago
    Watch Joanna Gaines on T.V. staging homes and the use of stacks of books. Get creative!
  • Deborah W. 3 months ago
    Thanks for the information. Our library system accepts reference books.
  • earl w. 3 months ago
    regular books can go to VA hospitals. they are always happy to get them
  • tommy b. 3 months ago
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