Your old books

Tristan Navarro

Article: Books as an Inventory Problem: or, Our Relationships with Books

My career so far has revolved around books, physical paper books. My earliest 'job' was working in a used bookshop in high school, doing mostly menial tasks. I got paid in food and books. Whenever I showed up, I would get lunch and I could take home any book that otherwise would've ended up in the dumpster. That's right, the dumpster. Thing is, most books are, monetarily, worthless. They are rather like cars, which depreciate as soon as they drive off the lot. Like cars, very few books retain their value after they leave the bookshop, and fewer will ever see their value increase. I really cannot say why, but I think it has to do with how we form relationships with books. Early on, I had the advantage – for someone who ended up going into books as a career – of learning to see books first and foremost as an inventory problem. Books, that is the physical items, are objects that can be put on a shelf, organized by author's last name, entered into spreadsheets and databases, and, just maybe, be read.

While at library school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I learned that libraries, too, are not above putting books in dumpsters. For a library, especially one of the largest in the nation and even world, books are an inventory problem. A tough one at that. In my last job at the U of I Rare Book & Manuscript Library, I ended up taking on the role of managing the library's barcoding project, where I oversaw the barcoding of some 70,000 books (only a fraction of the collection). An apt piece of advice I found on Twitter for working in libraries was: don't work in a library because you love books; work in a library because you love spreadsheets! Another saying I've heard worth repeating: What do you call a cataloger who reads? Unemployed. There is enough truth in both of those statements that it really hurts a lot of people. The magic of 'the book' fades considerably. I compare it to seeing how the sausage gets made. As someone who has worked in libraries and bookshops for over a decade, I'm writing this to reflect on my own relationship with books, and to defend it. Unless you are also a librarian or bookseller (and even then), this is probably not your relationship with books, and that is a wonderful thing – you are the kind of person I work for.

The reason I move books back and forth by the box in warehouse fashion, stare at spreadsheets, write descriptions, set prices or Dewey Decimal numbers as the situation calls for, is all so at the end of the day you find and take home a book that you care about. So take this as a friendly warning. By all means, if you ever want or need to sell your old books, you should try to get the best price for them possible. But thinking about books' monetary values, and thinking about them at scale, changes your relationship with books in a way that could disappoint you, or even become unhealthy. If you want money, status, or fame, then I would recommend that you focus on jewelry, stocks, or perhaps even art (though art is also not much better than books).

You are almost always going to be sorely disappointed by the price someone else is willing to pay for a book that holds any meaning to you; the same probably goes for your car and many other things in your life. Before worrying about how much your books are worth, (that is, how much someone else will be willing to pay for them), take a moment to ask yourself, what is your relationship with books? Both your own books, and books in general. I hope they have been there for you when you needed them. I hope they have made you laugh, cry, think. I hope they have made you appreciate others’ stories. If they haven't done that for you, in the most respectful way possible, I must ask: who exactly do you think that they will do that for? These are all questions I hope you consider before asking me, or any librarian or bookseller, to talk about what I and many rare book librarians lovingly call "your old books."

And if you really have decided to part with them for one reason or another? That's where I come in. I can take the burden, at least for the most part, of worrying about the gritty details about the market value, potential buyers, and inventory management. Unfortunately, I am constrained by the whatever company or institution I currently may be working at, so I can't always help with every set of books. But, whether you have ever considered donating or selling your books or not, I hope that this gives you the opportunity to consider what you want your relationship with books to look like.

Text c. Tristan Navarro. Design by Papaya.