Most of us who work in libraries are familiar with the Myth of the Free Gift—otherwise known as the Kittens-or-Beer Conundrum.
If you work in acquisitions or collection development, you’ve almost certainly been approached by someone whose parent recently died and left behind a collection of several hundred chemistry texts or political science monographs from the 1950s (these will be described to you as a “priceless collection of scholarly books”), which the donor can’t bring himself to throw away and which he believes should therefore be given a home in your library. If you hesitate, the donor will be shocked and maybe even offended—you’re a library, after all, and these priceless books are being offered to you for free. Why wouldn’t you want them?
If you work in public services, you’ve probably experienced a variation on this scenario in the form of volunteers: people who show up at the library and offer their services at no charge and can’t understand why you might hesitate to take them up on the offer.
Now, I want to be very clear: gift books can be wonderful, and volunteers often perform incredibly valuable service in our libraries. We love and appreciate both of them. But they illustrate the absolutely vital difference between Free Beer and Free Kittens.
Free beer is a gift that requires nothing of us but to consume it. Unrestricted cash money donations are free beer. Even restricted money—money that can only be used for purposes specified by the donor—is free beer, as long as the strings attached to it don’t create added work or aggravation for the library.
Just about every other kind of donation, whether it be a donation of goods or a donation of labor, is free kittens. Free kittens don’t cost anything to acquire, but they entail ongoing costs as you keep and care for them. Donated books have to be searched, deduped, reviewed, cataloged, and physically processed before they can be added to the collection—where they will take up shelf space and require some degree of ongoing care. Volunteers, obviously, require both training and supervision—and since they’re volunteers, they’re liable to turn over more frequently than regular employees, thus requiring more investment in training. The costs involved with accepting gifts and hosting volunteers may be well worth it, just as the cost of feeding and caring for a kitten may be worth it. But the costs being worth it doesn’t make them less real or worthy of careful consideration.
Furthermore, the downstream costs of accepting gifts of goods or labor are not always obvious up front—especially not to the people offering them, who often believe they’re giving you free beer. Look in the mug, though, and what you’ll almost always find is a kitten.
Even healthy kittens are expensive to care for, and not all healthy-looking kittens are actually healthy. Some kittens look cute and cuddly when they arrive in your home but then turn out to be not only unhealthy but also dangerous. Look carefully at the splotches on the pages of that 18th-century book that was just donated to your library: Do they represent harmless foxing, or are they a colony of toxic mold that will make your staff ill when they try to process the book? (Hard experience has taught me the importance of asking this question.)
Some kittens are criminals: Are you positive that the donor who is offering you a collection actually has the right to give it to you? Those who work in special collections departments are used to asking provenance questions, because they are often dealing with rare and unique documents, but this can be an important and fraught issue with general collection materials as well (as I have also learned by painful experience).
Some kittens are being offered for foster care, not adoption: Does your library use a carefully worded Deed of Gift document that makes clear the nature of each gift and that (once signed by the donor) leaves the library with clear ownership of the material and the right to dispose of it as the library sees fit? If not, then you run the risk of having the donor change his or her mind about the terms of transfer later on, or object to the way in which you’re managing the gift and push you to do it in some other way.
Some kittens are zombies: Accepting a donation of microfiche, eight-track tapes, cassettes, or documents in other outdated or moribund formats will often amount to inviting a cadre of the undead into your library, where they will lurk awkwardly about the edges of your collection, silently pleading for inclusion in a working, living collection that has no practical way of integrating them.
Kittens always need special attention: unlike the ones that we buy from vendors, donated books can’t be made to come to us “shelf-ready.” This means that in some cases, it may be more expensive to accept a book as a gift than it would be to buy a copy commercially.
The key to dealing with these kinds of challenges is to decide well ahead of time how and under what circumstances you’re willing to adopt kittens. If your library doesn’t have formal policies that govern the acceptance of gift materials and the management of volunteers, establish them. Your policies should provide answers to questions such as these:
- What formats will we accept, and why do we have restrictions?
- What subject areas are in and out of scope for us?
- What areas of the library are open to volunteer service, and which ones are not?
- What rights do volunteers have, and what obligations does the library have to them?
- What rights do we require donors to give the library along with the materials themselves?
- What will we do with donated books that don’t end up being added to the collection?
- Under what circumstances (if at all) will we send library staff to pick up donations?
- How many hours of volunteer labor can the library absorb?
- Do we assess the value of gifts for tax purposes? (Hint: the answer to this question is “No.”)
- Who may supervise volunteers, and how will volunteer labor be tracked and accounted for?
One particularly nice thing about having a policy in place is that it gives your frontline staff a backstop when they are dealing with a difficult would-be donor. For staff, it’s much easier to say to a donor, “I’m so sorry, but these materials fall outside the parameters of our gift policy,” than to say, “Hmmm, I don’t think these look like a good fit for our collection.” For the public, it’s much harder to argue with an established, documented, well-defined policy than with a person expressing an opinion.
One important caveat: sometimes gifts will be offered by people whom you wish to make happy for reasons that have nothing to do with the gift itself. If a major donor to the library’s (or the university’s) general fund offers you a gift of 200 eight-track tapes from 1973, it may be wise to accept that gift with a big and sincere smile. In a case like this, the cost of accepting the gift may be outweighed by the value of maintaining and deepening the library’s relationship with that donor. In other words, sometimes you do have to make room in your home for a zombie kitten. Just don’t expect it to act like beer.
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