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How to Get Free Books For Your School Library (and Use Them to Host a Book Fair)

Lucas Maxwell


Lucas Maxwell has been working with youth in libraries for over fifteen years. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, he's been a high school librarian in London, UK for over a decade. In 2017 he won the UK's School Librarian of the Year award and in 2022 he was named the UK Literacy Association's Reading For Pleasure Teacher Champion. He loves Dungeons & Dragons and is the author of Let's Roll: A Guide for Setting up Tabletop Roleplaying Games in Your School or Public Library. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

There is growing research to show that book ownership can have a huge impact on a child’s life, even after they reach adulthood. I’ve written before on running our amazing Book Award which highlights great “under the radar” books and gets the entire school reading them. On top of this, we also run book fairs in our schools once a year. Book fairs often leave a bad taste in my mouth because they are exclusionary in many ways. Students might feel left out because they can’t afford the books and might also be hesitant to come to the library for future events if they think there is a cost to taking part. I never liked the idea of making kids pay money for books, that’s a book store’s priority, not mine.

This is why I decided to try and create a free book fair for our Year 8 students (ages 12-13). Why this age group? Getting these books for free was no easy feat, really. It took 10+ years for me to be able to be in a position to receive them. This age group was chosen because it’s a big group (300 + students) and because the books I was receiving were aimed at that group, I had little to no control over the kinds of books I was getting. I will explain all of this…right now!

The Free Book Fair for Year 8 took place through their dedicated library lessons. They get these lessons once every two weeks. They simply get to choose from a huge range of free books that I’ve been collecting.

It wasn’t easy to run a book fair like this and there is no magic button to press that allowed me to do this. I have spent almost 10 years cultivating and building up a reading for pleasure community in the school and on top of this I’ve built relationships with publishers and authors which has resulted in this book fair taking off. I can say that social media played a huge role in this achievement. As much as I despise it, platforms like Twitter have done a lot of good for both myself and the students in the school. 

Everything I’m about to mention takes your own personal time away from you. There is no easy way to do it, there is no quick road to getting sent free books. I never set out to receive free books or be a book blogger or even be a librarian. I didn’t expect any of this, but I’m very proud of this moment and wanted to try and share some ways that I feel have helped. 

Write book reviews

You might not enjoy writing book reviews, but starting your own blog and writing your thoughts, however quick, about the books you’ve been reading can make a huge difference. When I say “your books,” I mean books you’ve bought or books you already have in your library. I would suggest doing this if you aren’t already as no one is going to send you free books out of the blue. One, it will get you in the mindset of reading daily which librarians typically do not have time for. Writing book reviews and tagging the author, illustrator if they have one, publishers, anyone involved in the book will only end up being a good thing. It goes without saying that you should never tag authors in negative reviews and in my opinion, unless your career is a professional reviewer, we as laymen should not be writing negative reviews online at all. I’ve done this in the past, before I was a librarian and quickly learned it was a shallow game that no one should play. Again, my opinion.

Stack of books
Photo Courtesy of Lucas Maxwell

Build a social media following

I would strongly suggest following authors and publishers on social media. This will help you find out about new books that are coming out but also just to have a contact. I have found that authors love being tagged in supportive, positive messages about their books. I mean who wouldn’t want that? Even if it’s just to show the book in the library, you never know what will come of it. The first author I ever tagged in a tweet was Holly Bourne because we had a group of students (and still do) obsessed with her and when she tweeted back at me to say thank you, I showed it to the students and they lost their minds. This resulted in me booking Holly for a visit which was really amazing. 

Go to conferences

Attending conferences through the School Library Association, CILIP, YLG, LILAC and others can put you in touch with publishers and send you home with tons of great books (I am based in the UK — these will be different depending on where you live). This is on top of meeting great people and learning tons of new things about librarianship. Even better, apply to speak at a conference, this is something I love doing. I can’t speak to people well one on one but I can speak to a room full of people and not have a second thought about it. This has resulted in more speaking opportunities and quite frankly more attention on social media which in turn has resulted in free books. 

Give Students a Voice

This is my favourite one. I love hearing what students say about books, even if it’s one sentence. I’m not expecting a dissertation on the themes of the book, I just enjoy hearing the students talk about the books they’re returning or reading at the tables. I will often say to them, “that’s great, do you mind if I tell the author on social media?” and they always say yes. Does this result in free books? No, but if you are starting out as someone who is championing reading for pleasure, capturing students’ voices is essential. And authors love hearing from students just as much as they love hearing from librarians. 

That’s it! It’s taken a long time to do but it’s one of the proudest things I’ve accomplished in the school to date!