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A new life for old books
June 7, 2010
by Ivan Raconteur

Knowledge is cheap. As a matter of fact, it can be free.

In some cases, one can’t even give it away.

This came to my attention recently when I encountered the Old Philosopher and his good lady wife enjoying a refreshing beverage and passing the time of day with a financial executive.

The Old Philosopher mentioned a problem he was facing regarding a complete set of 1980s vintage encyclopedias.

He no longer wanted the books, and apparently no one else did, either.

“I was dropping some things off at the thrift shop, and I just mentioned the word ‘encyclopedia,’ and the guy said ‘no, no, no,’” he explained.

The Old Philosopher demonstrated how the guy at the thrift shop had backed away in horror with his hands raised in a defensive posture at the very mention of the dreaded word. It was a pretty good demonstration, considering the O.P. was sitting in a lawn chair at the time.

“I knew then that it wasn’t going to be easy to get rid of those things,” the Old Philosopher commented.

He said he had considered burning the books in a bonfire if he was unable to dispose of them.

There is nothing wrong with the books, apart from the fact that some of the information is outdated, but they are taking up space that he wants for another purpose.

One suggestion he had heard involved a guy who had developed a system for burning old books as fuel.

The sage had not yet tracked down the man, but was considering this as an option.

Later that evening, after parting ways with the Old Philosopher, I gave the matter some more thought.

It troubled me, this idea that books such as these would end up as firewood or in a landfill somewhere. It seemed that there must be a better solution.

I began an investigation and found that the Old Philosopher is not the only one trying to unload a set of encyclopedias. It seems that many people are finding themselves in the same position.

As more of us turn to the Internet for our research needs, encyclopedias seem to have fallen out of favor.

Many libraries and charity book sales have stopped accepting donations of encyclopedias, because if they take the books, they are lumbered with having to dispose of them.

There are, however, many creative ideas for giving a new life to unwanted encyclopedias.

One of my favorites, at the risk of being indelicate, is to cut out the pages and use them to wallpaper one’s bathroom, and then cover the result with a clear finish to seal it.

“People call it the reading room,” the person who made the suggestion reasoned, “so they might as well learn something while they are in there.”

Other suggestions that involved using encyclopedias for home decorating included drilling a hole in the center of a stack of books and turning them into a lamp base.

Another option is to use stacks of encyclopedias, coupled with a glass top, to make a stylish coffee table, or, for those peculiar individuals who don’t drink coffee, an accent table.

The heavy books can also be used as construction materials for book shelves and other items.

Encyclopedias can also be donated to those who might not have access to computers.

Places such as children’s hospitals, shelters, and literacy programs are all potential candidates for such donations.

Some charitable or church-affiliated organizations collect encyclopedias and other books and ship them to third world countries where books of any description are scarce, and the people are hungry for knowledge.

The people in literacy programs need practice reading, and may not have much money. Encyclopedias could offer good practice material covering a wide variety of subjects.

Another suggestion was to advertise the books as free items in local newspapers.

Some have suggested donating old encyclopedias to schools or day care centers, where they could be used for art classes and other projects.

The children could cut out photos and illustrations from the books to create something new.

An option for older students would take advantage of the fact that some of the information in the books is dated.

Students could be assigned a topic from an encyclopedia, and be given the task of researching and updating the information.

Craft projects are popular these days, and some people have used the sturdy bindings of old encyclopedias to make items such a purses.

Others have cut out spaces in old books to create jewelry boxes or hiding places for small valuables.

The only thing limiting the usefulness of old encyclopedias is our imagination.

It would be much more satisfying to think that these books, with their rich illustrations and wealth of knowledge, will go on to another life, rather than simply ending up in a fire pit or landfill.