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Magazines > Searcher > March 2003
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Vol. 11 No. 3 — March 2003
Our Friend, the Taxman
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Presidential elections occur every 4 years. Congress offers up its members to the will of the people every 2 years. The House of Representatives puts everybody on the block, while the Senate staggers its submission with only one-third of the senators hitting the end of their 6-year terms in any election year.

But budgets and taxes never miss a calendar. Bills must be paid and the money collected to pay them. No rest for the wicked.

Wicked describes the situation facing many library directors these days as the national economy continues to limp. State and local government officials face severe revenue shortfalls and libraries are getting hit hard. In California, the governor has proposed fees for circulating material. When divine, the owner of Rowecom/Faxon, defaulted with millions of periodical dollars and no renewal orders placed, every librarian shared the pain and rage of those affected. The injustice seemed all the greater to professionals who knew how badly collections would be hit in these tough times.

Public libraries face the severest collection challenges, particularly poor libraries serving minority communities, and public librarians need all the help they can get. I had a personal experience of this problem the other day that gave me an idea.

As I have stated in this venue and others, I am a registered Amazon-aholic. In fact, I suspect that I am the poster child for compulsive shopping at that particular online vendor. The objects of my insatiable expenditures are mystery books and jazz CDs. How bad is the addiction? Well, let us just say that the delivery schedule, on average, exceeds weekly. I have ordered so many CDs that lines of them snake from room to room, but when it comes to the books, retention is no option. It's them or me, and, since the landlord won't accept books in exchange for rent monies, I get to live here, but the books have to go.

So I donate them to a friend who works in a public library — not my own city's, but a library serving a minority community at the other end of the county. She told me recently that when she brought in the first bundle of books I had given her, her staff went through them very carefully, evaluating them for the collection. Now, when she comes in on a Monday morning, they cluster round eagerly, ready to snatch the goodies and rush them to the shelves. Her tales of their joy have even led me to order more mysteries that might appeal to the Asian-American community she serves. (No credit to me for generosity here. A bird flies overhead and my compulsion sends me running to Amazon to order books on Christopher Robin or by Robin Cook. It's a disease.)

After the first 50 or so books, my friend brought me a pile of pink forms issued by her library for donors to use in claiming tax deductions. No problem. Amazon maintains a scrupulous list of my purchases with dollar amounts, dates, and even links to the current status of those books on its system, including the prices being charged for used versions.

BINGO! I've got an idea. Public libraries serve as book-buying consortia for their communities. Well, what about if the community of book-buyers returns the favor? How about if a major library vendor — OCLC comes to mind — were to establish a program that automated and accelerated the donation process? A centralized database could inventory all the books people wanted to donate and then post the conditions of donation. In return, the public could receive records designed specifically to meet tax requirements for charitable deductions. Libraries could post links to the service on their Web sites. The automation process could even include matching donated titles to catalog records to simplify the process of adding the books to library collections. Of course, not all donated books go into official collections, some go into book sales, but that still protects the tax deduction by the donor.

Affiliated arrangements with online bookstores like or could promote book buying off library Web sites. Perhaps the library could even get advance alerts to books it could expect to see donated as soon as the donor got the book and finished reading it. As a side benefit, perhaps the online bookstore affiliates could share some of the information on orders placed by a community, which would help improve library acquisition decisions.

There might be some problems in dealing with the large online bookstores. Amazon in particular has a vigorous program of selling used books. Some of those used books are actually books sold and then bought back by Amazon. Six months after I had purchased a CD of Ella Fitzgerald singing the Duke Ellington songbook, I tried to buy a second copy for a gift and a notice from Amazon tried to get back the one I had ("I don't think so!"). Nonetheless, smart negotiation should be able to evade reluctance by online book brokers. Just off the top of my head, some lines of thought — "I guess we'll have to go talk to (INSERT competitor's name here). Maybe they'll appreciate the opportunity to sell off library Web sites," "That's too bad. I thought I read somewhere you wanted to break into the market for direct sales to libraries, but I guess you know your business best," "Well, our state budget officer will be disappointed. I believe you met him recently at that conference on future Internet taxation issues."

Difficulties remain. One would hope that any system set up would support donations outside the immediate area. It should not limit itself to supporting donations made by patrons to their own local libraries. Small and poor libraries need more help than large and well-funded libraries. Many libraries of all sizes have special needs, e.g., books in non-English language, large-print books, etc. One would hope that the program could support movement of books to wherever the books were most needed. Perhaps participants could receive shipping materials to facilitate contributions out of the area. Payments for the process could come from a number of sources beyond the pocketbooks of the donors — libraries receiving the contributions, affiliate revenues, even grants from the Gates Foundation. Let's get creative here!

These are tough times and, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Right?!!

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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