The Richland County Public Library has discarded nearly 1 million books, magazines and newspapers since 2012, more than any other library in South Carolina, according to statewide surveys collected by the S.C. State Library from June 30, 2018, the most recent data available.
Librarians around the state regularly add and remove books from their collections to meet the needs of the communities they serve. In Richland County, the library has moved toward downloadable and activity-based content, earning state and national awards for its innovation and services.
In the process, the physical print collection, which includes books and magazines, has shrunk by a third since 2012, according to statewide data. Where are all those books going?
Last year, nine out of every 10 print materials removed from the collection were tossed into the blue bins for recycling, according to records maintained by Richland Library. The rest were donated or sold.
But many books slated for “recycling” are likely going to a landfill instead, said Andrew Spicer, a member of the S.C. Recycling Market Development Advisory Council and an international business professor at the University of South Carolina. He teaches classes about corporate social responsibility and sustainability.
“This is what they call ‘aspirational recycling.’ They put it in a bin, and they hope it ends up somewhere good,” he said, speaking generically of how many people and corporations operate. “There are certain things that aren’t profitable to recycle, and one of them right now is mixed paper.”
China decided to stop taking recyclables from the United States in 2017, creating a surplus of material and driving down prices locally, Spicer said. Companies may say they are recycling, but there is no regulation to hold them accountable if they don’t, he added. In some cases, it’s cheaper to just throw the material away, and it’s happening across the country.
For example, a recycler in Ohio recently stopped accepting books from his county library. Prices on the material dropped so low that it wound up costing more than it was worth to recycle, said Ken Rieman, chairman of the Bowling Green Recycling Center in Ohio.
“We were just fortunate to move the books along and be done with it,” Rieman said. “Otherwise, we had 20 tons of books and we’d have to take them to a landfill. No one paid us for them.”
“People think because you put it in a bin it gets recycled. That’s not true,” he added. “Books are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Jean Capalbo, a Richland County resident since 2011, said she loves the library but is surprised by the number of books.
“It seems like there should be some other way to recycle paper,” she said, adding that artists in Sedona, Arizona, take old books from the library after an initiative she helped start there.
“That’s not a solution to the issue, but that was one way we used the books,” she said. “We transformed the books into art.”
Richland Library has been working with the same vendor to handle its recycling for several years, said Melanie Huggins, the executive director.
“We make a strong effort to work with reputable vendors, whether they’re construction workers, or cleaning crews, or people who recycle our materials,” Huggins said. “We work with people that we trust, and if we find any reason to believe that someone has broken that trust, we would revisit our relationship with them.”
But she doesn’t think materials end up in a landfill.
“I would find it implausible that they can survive in business if they weren’t making a profit off the recycled materials and instead throwing those things into a landfill,” she added.
Richland County isn’t alone. Three other public libraries in South Carolina have also thrown hundreds of thousands of books into “recycling” during the same period. But at least one — Spartanburg County — ensures they are made into something new.
All of this is happening as the digital divide widens throughout rural South Carolina.
“I cannot stress enough how many people actually do not have that access (to downloadable content) and the digital divide is very alive, not just in Charleston County but nationally,” said Angela Craig, executive director of the Charleston County Public Library. “There are some folks where the internet here in Charleston County does not even work in their own home. I have staff members who do not have internet access in their home, and they have to … use work computers to use the internet.”
‘People read differently now’
Richland Library has seen many changes in the past several years. Large, warehouse style shelves were replaced with stylish displays and activity-based space planning, said Tony Tallent, the library’s chief program and innovation officer.
“We had space for the books in a way that we don’t now,” Tallent said. “We don’t necessarily want the biggest collection. We want the best possible collection.”
It all started in 2013 when voters allowed Richland County to borrow $59 million for the library and raise property taxes to pay it back. The county still owes $49.6 million on that loan and will continue paying it off until 2034, according to Richland County’s financial statements.
The money built two new libraries, renovated eight others and helped establish the Richland County Public Library System as one of the best in the country. It also forced the library to re-evaluate its collection, executive director Huggins said, and the large-scale reduction of books reflects that change.
“During the renovation process, we had this rare opportunity to touch every physical item in our collection, which doesn’t happen very often,” she said.
Books and other print materials are removed from the collection for three reasons: they are damaged, they contain old or inaccurate information or they haven’t been borrowed in four or more years, Tallent said.
“If for whatever reason we don’t want (a book) living on our library shelves, we try to find another home for it,” he said. “Especially in places that don’t have easy access to books.”
The library has established 78 community collection points — where anyone, including people without a library card, can take a book and not worry about having to bring it back. Of those, 59 are ‘Books on the Bus,’ a program with The COMET, and 19 other locations throughout Richland County, including daycares, government agencies and communities far from downtown, Tallent said.
The library also began a continuing contract in 2015 with Better World Books, a new and used bookseller that works to fund literacy programs around the world. Between 2015 to 2017, Better World Books paid Richland Library $8,473 in book sales, according to records maintained by the library. Payments for 2018 and 2019 were not available.
But last year, only 11% of the books removed from the collection were donated or sold. The remaining 76,700 books were tossed into the blue bins and picked up at no cost by a Greenville-based company called Shred-A-Way, according to documents and library staff.
In addition to books, the company also collects old, broken and unwanted electronics. Its website claims to offer a “secure recycling program that recycles all paper-based documents after the shredding process.”
However, the company’s owner, David Ward, said he only shreds the material, packages it into cubes and ships it to another company that recycles the material into something new. He says it stays out of a landfill, but declined to name the companies he works with for reporters to verify the material is made into something new.
“If you can’t take my word for it, that’s fine,” he said.
The economics of recycling have changed dramatically, said Brandon Wright, vice president of communications with the National Waste and Recycling Association, which works to grow existing markets and find new markets for its member companies.
“Something is only recyclable if there’s a market for it,” he said, adding that someone has to take those books, grind them up and turn them into something worth selling. “This was all profitable at one point because we had markets (to sell the material). We don’t have markets now.”
In any event, the bond referendum in 2013 provided the Richland Library with new opportunities to be innovative with the space available.
“We know that people read differently now,” Tallent said. “Our collection is reflected and expressed more online in a way that it was not five years ago, and especially not 10 years ago.”
Since 2012, Richland Library has added more than 215,000 e-book titles, increasing by nearly 1,000%. About one out of every four books in 2018 was an e-book, not including audio content. It still has the largest collection of physical books and continues to add more than any library in the state, data shows.
By comparison, Charleston County’s e-book collection in 2018 represented only 4% of the library’s readable formats, with 23,328 titles.
“You have to have the device to use e-content,” said Craig, the Charleston County Library’s executive director. “This is where the digital divide really does come in. With a community such as Charleston, where we do have a very large rural community, we work aggressively to make sure that we’re able to get physical books in the hands of people who do not have equitable access.”
A Game of ‘Keepers’ and ‘Pitchers’
Charleston County voters also approved a bond referendum for their library, this one in 2014. The money built two new branches, renovated three locations and equipped the entire collection with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, said Amy Quesenbery, manager of library collections, acquisitions and technical services.
“Every single item is handled and examined by our team of librarians at each location, because we don’t want to put RFID tags in material that is falling apart, stained or damaged, and we also want to make sure our collection is as current as possible,” she said.
This effort started in May 2017 and has been ongoing, Quesenbery added, which would help explain why Charleston County is No. 2 in the state for the number of books discarded. The physical collection has shrunk by more than a third since 2012, statewide data shows.
Outdated, unwanted or damaged hardback books are thrown into the trash — Charleston County staff would have to physically cut off the hardbacks to recycle them, Craig said.
The remaining books are picked up by the county’s recycling system or shuffled to other locations in the community with help from the local Friends of the Library group, Craig said. Staff is working to build the outreach department to establish community collection points, similar to what Richland County has done.
But unlike Richland County, staff has no way of knowing how many books were put back into the community or how many were recycled once they were taken off the shelves. Craig said she hopes to begin collecting that data soon.
In fact, no other library interviewed by The State collects data on where the books wind up once they are removed from the collection.
The Greenville County Library, which comes in at No. 3 in the state for discarding books, initially declined to participate in this story. James Wooten, the library’s community engagement manager, later said in an email “the vast majority” are donated to the local Friends of the Library group.
“As a last resort, we recycle materials or place them in waste receptacles when their condition makes them unsuitable for recycling,” Wooten said.
The Spartanburg County Library threw out the most books in 2018 with 113,742, bringing it to No. 4 overall in the state between 2012 and 2018.
Todd Stephens, executive director of the Spartanburg County Library, said it’s a cyclical process. Staff may have come across a section last year that needed more attention than others, he said. The library discarded 81,550 books in the fiscal year that just ended, he said, noting a 28% decrease.
Librarians tend to fall somewhere between a “keeper” and “pitcher,” Stephens said. It tears keepers up inside to get rid of books, while pitchers are always wanting to make space for new material.
“To maintain a current and up-to-date collection, you have got to clean out. That’s just the nature of the work,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is put a cruddy book in a kid’s hands if that’s their first opportunity to touch a library book.”
The Spartanburg County Library has a free-standing used book store, where many of the books removed from the collection wind up, with deals like $1 for five books. The rest are donated to the community, or delivered to Pratt Industries for shredding and recycling, Stephens said.
The books are shredded in Duncan, then shipped to a paper mill in Conyers, Georgia, where the material is made into containerboard for cardboard boxes, said Shawn State, president of Pratt Recycling, a division of Pratt Industries.
But it costs Spartanburg County’s library $1,260 a year to ensure those books are picked up and delivered to recycling, records show.
“It’s a general community responsibility. We have these materials and we can’t donate them or sell them. And if they don’t need to be trashed, we can do something positive,” Stephens said.
“Librarians are incredible stewards of resources, and they agonize over how those resources are handled because they’re representing the public,” he said. “We can talk about e-books all day long, but the truth is — and you know it — we still want people picking up newspapers and we still want people picking up books.”