Never one to judge a book by its cover, Transcona artist Debra Frances Plett believes the components of a well-made book speaks volumes about what’s inside.
"I really became intrigued with the fact that all of the parts of the book can reflect the contents of the book," she says of choosing end papers, cover materials and binding techniques in her book making.
Along with blank journals featuring fish leather covers, logbooks actually made from vertically split logs, and leather-covered medieval girdle books meant to carry on the belt of the wearer so they could walk and read, Plett also builds books from the discarded pages or covers of commercially made books.
"I don’t take apart good books," explained the book artist.
"I take apart books that have already been trashed."
Collecting materials from thrift stores or yard sales, Plett incorporates printed pages in the hand sewn bindings or covers of the new books she creates in her neatly kept basement studio.
"This protects the spine, but it also adds character to the book," she says of the decorative and useful aspects of the old paper in a newly made book.
Like all book lovers, Plett would prefer every book to have a long and useful life before being tossed into the recycling bin or upcycled into art.
But finding the right home for an unwanted personal library seems just a bit harder in this not-quite-out-of-the-pandemic era. It’s easy to find a new home for recently released novels or children’s books, but most thrift shops or charities can’t resell older non-fiction, encyclopedias or out-of-date textbooks.
Organizations such as the Winnipeg Public Library and Children’s Hospital Book Market accepted thousands of fiction and non-fiction books before the pandemic, but neither accepts used books right now until they restart their book sales.
Before you dump your unwanted books in your blue box, consider if that’s the best place for them, suggests Karen Melnychuk, executive director Multi-Material Stewardship Manitoba.
"We always want people to re-use or share before they dispose of anything," she says. "We want to ensure it has lived its whole life before being disposed of."
So where to send on that towering stack of excess tomes? Here’s a few suggestions.
Stock some of the hundreds of the little free libraries in Winnipeg. These small book sharing boxes operate on the principle of take a book, leave a book. Ensure your books are in decent condition and that you’re not passing on your problem books to someone else. Some little libraries decline textbooks and other outdated materials. Check out the map of little free libraries on the Winnipeg Public Library’s website.
Until the end of May, the Manitoba Library Association is sponsoring a book drive to support their prison libraries program. They’re looking for good quality paperback novels, how-to books, biographies, graphic novels, children’s books, and titles by Indigenous writers, both for an upcoming sale and to donate to prisons.
"The donation of books is very important to an organization like us because the prisons in Manitoba have no budgets for books or libraries," says Kirsten Wurmann, chair of the prison libraries committee, which supports libraries in six Manitoba correctional institutions by providing volunteers and books.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for donation locations.
Before you pack up your books, Wurmann suggests taking careful stock of the condition and contents of books you’re considering passing on.
"If they’re old, if they’re out of date, if they’re dusty or mold, there’s no need to be donated to us or other organization because it just makes more work for our volunteers," she says.
Some thrift shops will also accept books to sell in their stores, Ironically, Sam’s Place at 159 Henderson Hwy., a social enterprise café and used bookstore run by Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba, no longer accepts donations as it prepares to move.
"After our move, we won’t be featuring books in our new location," explained MCC executive director Darryl Loewen.
"We’ve diminished our inventory by half during the pandemic."
He said remaining stock from Sam’s Place will be passed on to MCC’s network of thrift shops.
Give your aging hardcover books a new life by upcycling them into household items such as a knife block, lamp, or a book safe, made by gluing all the pages together and then hollowing out an opening. Pages can also be ripped up and incorporated into handmade paper.
"There are ways to get another life out of those books," suggested Karin Borland, manager of library services for Winnipeg Public Library.
She advises people looking to repurpose old or damaged books to search out ideas for altered books and paper crafts, such as making a seasonal wreath from old book pages or creating a new story from tattered children’s books.
"Not everyone likes the idea of taking a book apart, but it’s certainly a way to upcycle or repurpose a book," said Borland.
Before the pandemic, some of the library’s discarded or culled books would be sold at used book sales or offered to stewards of little free libraries, and branches would accept book donations from the public as well. Those sales will return, promised Borland, but no dates have been set.
If all else fails, recycle
Winnipeg’s blue box program will accept books, provided the covers and spines are removed and discarded. Specific details are outlined on the Recyclepedia (simplyrecycle.ca) website but the best option is still to donate, sell or share them.
"It’s all about diverting as much as we can from the landfill and making sure we keep those materials in the economy," said Melnychuk.
Up to 80,000 tonnes of paper are diverted annually through the efforts of volunteers and staff at the Mennonite Central Committee warehouse in Plum Coulee. The organization receives pallets of books donated by universities, schools and libraries for recycling, says activities coordinator Gordon Letkeman.
Volunteers chop off the spines of hardcover books with a large electric cutter, discard the covers and separate the pages. The paper is sold to a local company which makes insulation out of paper pulp, he said.
"It’s being re-purposed into something useful," said Letkeman.
In Winnipeg, Cascades Canada collects books and other paper material from universities, schools and businesses and thrift shops, charging them $15 per tonne for pick-up.
"When we get hardcover and softcover books in our plant, it’s put in with the lowest grade of paper and then it goes to a pulp mill," explained fibre purchaser Brian Morton.
That pulp is formed into packaging materials like the molded trays in apple boxes or beverage trays used by fast food restaurants.
Although recycling might not be the first option, it still might be the best choice for tired or dated books, said Wurmann.
"The public should feel okay about taking those old textbooks and out of date books and recycling them or making art from them," she said.
After freelancing from abroad and in Toronto for most of her career, Jessica Lee moved to Winnipeg from Toronto in 2021 to join the Free Press’ team of photographers.
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.