Library administrators go online to clear shelves of surplus books


For years, Ann Gilligan, branch manager of the Howard County Central Library, watched as hundreds of unused, surplus books - those spare copies of Jurassic Park, extraneous encyclopedias, extra paperback romances - filled the stacks, collecting dust and taking up precious shelf space.

The gridlock was alleviated briefly through the library's twice-a-year book sale. But in summer 2004, library administrators came up with an idea: Why not offer the books online?

Since then, the library has earned thousands of dollars through online surplus-book sales on Web sites such as and Ebay, putting it at the middle of what bibliophiles and library administrators say is a fast-growing - and increasingly lucrative - push by libraries.

The Howard County library system made about $5,000 selling books online last year. And getting rid of all those unwanted books reduced clutter - an important side benefit, said Gilligan.

"We needed shelving to display more books in the children's section and that has really helped," she said.

Howard's is hardly the only library system to take its surplus books online. Bernard Margolis, president of the Boston Public Library, said the library system began using the Internet about three years ago and has added about $1,000 a month in profit.

"We get thousands of books donated to the library and there are things that we need and can use and they are added to the collection," Margolis said. "We also get multiple copies and duplicates of what we already have, and they end up in book sales."

Dan Walters, president of the Public Library Association and executive director of the Las Vegas/Clark County Library System in Nevada, said that system has been using Ebay and for the past few years to sell surplus materials.

Many of the books sold online might be available elsewhere, Walters said. "But, you do get these gems, and they really do not qualify to end up at Sotheby's and Christie's, but they are worth at least 50 bucks to the person, if you find them - and that is attributed to the Internet."

Book sales are an important, if little-known, aspect of library operations.

Howard County's library system receives about 20,000 donated books a year and many are still sold at sales such as the two held each year by the Friends of Howard County Library. As many as 14,000 books are sold at each of those events for about a dollar apiece.

Internet sales free staff members who otherwise might have to deal with donated books and books that are being taken out of circulation, according to Valerie J. Gross, director of the Howard County library system.

"We need to remove titles on a continual basis, and that is one of the reasons why this is an outstanding setting - we no longer need to allocate staff for books that need to be discarded," she said. "It's a savings in how we use and apply the time in what we do."

Chris Myers, director of Su, the Columbia-based Internet sales company that sells books for the Howard County system, said his company picks up the books from the library branches every few weeks and has sold about 1,000 a month for an average of about $5 each. His company is a third-party seller for Amazon. com and Ebay.

And the returns can be considerable: A surplus dictionary recently was sold online to someone in Italy for $21, according to Brian K. Auger, associate director for the Howard library system. A chemistry book was sold for more than $63.

Still, library officials say that online sales are unlikely to eliminate more traditional methods of selling surplus books.

Prince George's County, for example, began experimenting with to sell some of its books a few months ago.

"We only sell select items online - if we think something has a particular value and we can get more for it, then we sell it online," said Maralita L. Freeny, the library director.

But Freeny and other library officials across the state said many prospective book buyers prefer to sift through the dusty piles of books.

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