Don’t Dumpster That Book! a Life as Art Awaits It

Artists are cutting, burning, and hanging books to create “shaped prose”, landscapes, and faces. University of Iowa professor, Garrett Stewart, sees these book sculptures as symbols of “renewable intellectual energy.” The resulting art is pretty incredible, albeit bittersweet,and sometimes strangely beautiful (such as the Edinburgh paper sculptures). This “book tree” from a gallery in the Netherlands is a good example:

Click on image to enlarge

Give Law Books to Art

Law libraries in the Netherlands have also gotten into the act. Here is a sculpture created out of law books that have been written in, torn, or defaced in some way. Now, they are art!

This bundle of law books hanging from the ceiling, with a sword. Art!

In the U.S., several artists have used Thomson Reuters West reporters as book art pieces. Mickey Smith created In Memoriam, an interactive piece in which visitors must step across 1,201 discarded Federal Reporters to see the rest of the works in the “Library Science” gallery exhibit. This makes the visitors “active participants in the desecration of physical tomes of legal knowledge.” The Tower of Law exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is constructed from hundreds of West reporters.

There are other uses for discarded books. They can even earn brief fame on movie or TV sets, department store displays (!), or as parts of physics stacking experiments. But most withdrawn library books have other, more mundane likely fates.

Besides re-purposing discarded books as furniture or art, law libraries have so many more alternatives than before. Instead of throwing away or recycling unneeded or unwanted books, we can give them to other libraries or digitize them.

Give Books to Other Libraries

There are several ways offer your books to other law libraries. You can use listservs. Mila Rush at the University of Minnesota started the NEEDSANDOFFERS-L email list to help law libraries exchange legal publications. Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas, hosts the list. Typically, libraries offer duplicates of periodical issues, serial runs, withdrawn or gift books. Libraries can also request missing issues needed for binding journals, and specific serial or monographic titles to build their collections. While there are no geographic restrictions, the NEEDSANDOFFERS-L list is mostly used by U.S. law librarians. Libraries also offer books to good homes or request books on other law library email lists such as LAW-LIB, CALL-L, LIS-LAW, ALLA-ANZ, and OSALL.

You can also use “duplicates lists” such as the Australian Law Librarians’ Association (ALLA) wiki or the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Technical Services Special Interest Section (TS SIS) Exchange of Duplicates Program (for serial titles).

Also, keep in mind, a book or collection that might have become out of scope for your library or for which you do not have space might be a good fit in another library collection. Before throwing a book away, think about what library might need it. Your withdrawn books might help another library rebuild its collections destroyed by floods, earthquakes, war, and other disasters. Your books can fill in gaps in other law library or general library collections. The Law Library of Congress might need that official gazette you’re about to toss! You can target your book offers to specific libraries with strong collections on particular jurisdictions or areas of law. For example, when the Association of the Bar of the City of New York was seeking a new home for its exceptional historical foreign law collection, it found a good match in the George Washington Law Library. Transferring books to other libraries can strengthen their collections. You can arrange for libraries receiving your books to pay the costs of your shipping the books to them.

Give Books to Used Book Dealers

You can give discarded books to Better World Books (BWB). BWB lists the books for sale on their website for anyone to purchase (at a low price). Law students and college students in public policy or other law-related classes buy casebooks, even older ones, making those books some of the top sellers. BWB gives the donating library a percentage of the sales price. And BWB often donates unsold books to Books for Africa. BWB provides shipping materials, and you can easily print shipping labels and schedule UPS pickups online. You can search used books offered for sale by BWB and other second-hand booksellers at

Give or Loan Books to Digitization Projects

Besides the good feeling of giving your withdrawn books to other libraries that need them instead of dumpstering them, you can lend or give them to publishers engaged in digitization projects that benefit us all. Our library has given or lent our books to W.S. Hein to help develop its World Constitutions Illustrated and World Trials Library via HeinOnline. We’ve contributed books to other HeinOnline collections, to LLMC-Digital, Hathi Trust, and Google Books. And, as I mentioned in a previous Slaw post, law libraries worldwide collaborated to build a digital library of Haitian law books. Yale Law Library has been a key partner in developing and populating the new Gale Cengage Making of Modern Law foreign law module.

Conclusion, or a New Beginning

The books your library no longer needs can have useful and sometimes creative afterlives. Please don’t dumpster them. Re-purpose them. Give them a chance to make a difference to another library, to become famous, or contribute to the brave new world of ebooks.


  1. So — how do you dust it?

    On a more constructive note — My favourite repurposing of old books is that at the Technical University of Delft (the Dutch again!), where they used books made redundant by modern information technologies to build a new reference desk. I like this for two reasons: 1) It visually demonstrates the library’s move from being a repository to providing an information service; and 2) It’s green!

  2. Apologies — I neglected to insert the link to the picture of that reference desk:

  3. Lyonette Louis-Jacques

    Oh my gosh! It’s great! How did they get the books to fit so well? What’s holding it together? I like the visual too for move to information servce. Cool!

  4. My library has given away many boxes of unneeded law books for use as set decorations for tv shows but we haven’t managed to give any to artists yet. Lyonette, here’s another option that you missed –

  5. Lyonette Louis-Jacques

    LOL! I forgot that potential use. Every once and a while, you’ll see that use particular use in movies and TV shows…:-) Sometimes, it’s a key, gun, or precious artifact carved inside a book.

    No such uses with eBooks, though:

    8 Unexpected Downsides of the Switch to E-books (Christina H, February 14, 2012)

    #8. You Can’t Hide a Gun in a Kindle

  6. Lyonette Louis-Jacques

    The first one’s so evocative! Hauntingly beautiful. I’m trying to guess the titles of the books he used for all of them based on the untransformed parts…:-)

  7. Lyonette Louis-Jacques

    More from law librarian colleagues in France and Germany:

    Old Law Books Are Not Garbage, They’re Columns and Towers
    Bruce Carton, Legal Blog Watch

    The German electronic book exchange is called ELTAB (Elektronische Tauschboerse) and to be found here:
    (run by the Kaiserslautern University of Technology; open to libraries worldwide, free, but must pay shipping costs?)