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Keeping good books on book donations

Tribune Content Agency logoTribune Content Agency 5/15/2019 By Jeffrey L. Seglin, Tribune Content Agency
a person holding a box: It’s great to donate books, but don’t lie about where you send them on tax receipts. © Dreamstime It’s great to donate books, but don’t lie about where you send them on tax receipts.

Every winter a reader we're calling Gary likes to spend some time culling through the bookshelves in his house to thin out his collection and make room for newer acquisitions. Gary likes to think of himself as a voracious reader who also appears to be an equally voracious collector.

"My shelf space is limited and there are only so many books I can pile on the floor in my bedroom and home office," he writes.

Gary's strategy is to get rid of the books he hasn't read in quite some time and is unlikely to re-read any time soon. The first titles to go are those titles for which he has multiple copies. In his zest for acquiring books he sometimes forgets he already owns a copy. In such instances, he keeps the best copy or a copy that has particular significance to him, whether it was a gift that includes an inscription or is a copy he heavily annotated.

While he's contemplated trying to sell his culled-out pile through any number of online options, few of his books are worth a lot of money and Gary doesn't want to invest the time it would take to list each title, track the sale, pack up a book, and then get to the post office. Instead, he chooses to donate the four or five boxes of books each year to local public libraries or other not-for-profits seeking donation.

This year, Gary's workplace was hosting a collection drive for books to go to a local nonprofit. As a result, he decided to split his donation equally between his local public library and his workplace's drive.

"My local library gives me a receipt for the donated books so I can take a charitable deduction from my taxes," Gary writes. He won't receive a receipt from any books given through work.

But Gary writes that the public library gives him a signed and dated receipt with a blank space for him to fill in the number of books he's donated.

He wants to know if it would be wrong to put the total number of books he donated to both places on the library receipt since he won't be getting one from the workplace drive.

"It's not like I'm lying about the number of books I donated," he writes.

Not lying is good.

But it would be wrong for Gary to indicate he donated books to his public library, which he really donated to another group. If getting a receipt for his taxes so he can claim the charitable deduction is his primary motivation, then Gary should donate all of his books to a group that provides receipts.

Since he is donating so many books, Gary might double-check with whoever is coordinating the workplace drive to see if he can be provided with a receipt.

Gary is doing a good thing by donating to local libraries and nonprofits. The right thing is for him to be honest about what he ultimately gives to each organization.

(Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.)

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