Sunday, May 13, 2018

Keeping the books and all that comes with them

Every year, a reader we're calling Bert looks forward to his town library's massive used book sale. The sale takes place over several days. Bert visits the sale on several days and uses the event as a way to stock up on some of his reading for the following year.

Often, after he has finished reading the books he purchases, if Bert doesn't want to keep them on his own shelves or if he doesn't have a friend to whom he might want to give a copy of a book, Bert will donate copies back to the library for it to sell at the next year's sale.

Bert writes that he's come away with some real gems over the years, ranging from first editions of decades-old titles to paperbacks of relatively new offerings. He's also occasionally found interesting material tucked among the pages of his purchases such as old bookmarks with the names of faraway bookstores; Inscriptions to prospective readers from someone presumably giving a book as a gift; Even a personal letter or two tucked away in the pages.

The only downside, Bert observes, is that he doesn't have enough bookshelves to store all of his purchases. It's not unusual for piles of books to sit by his bedside or to be stacked up on random tables and flat surfaces throughout his house.

Because his haul of books each year is sizeable, Bert often doesn't get around to reading each book until well after the book sale has ended. A few weeks ago, as he was choosing a next title to take on, Bert settled into a favorite reading chair with a book and began to thumb through its pages. Within seconds, a piece of paper floated onto his lap. Upon closer inspection, Bert saw that the piece of paper was a $20 bill.

Given that books at the sale are generally $1 or $2 a copy, he rarely spends much more than $20 each year. With this newly discovered windfall, Bert pretty much had recoupled his used book expenditures for that previous year.

While he writes that his first reaction was one of pleasure, he soon grew concerned that keeping the $20 might not be the honorable thing to do.

"The library is trying to raise money by selling the used books," Bert writes. "Is it wrong for me to keep the money knowing that the sale is a fundraiser for the library?"

Bert should not feel any guilt about keeping the $20. If he wants to, he can certainly donate the $20 to the library. Or he can use it to buy an extra $20 worth of books at the next sale. Or he can simply keep the money.

Similarly, if Bert had discovered that one of his $2 purchases turned out to be a book he could sell to collectors for far more money, he would have no obligation to share any profits with the library.

When he purchased the books, he was buying everything contained within their pages.

The right thing is for him to rest easy in whatever option he decides to take and to settle in to another good read. 

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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