Two years ago, Sarah Simmons found a bookmark in a used book. Simmons, then a freshman in the Residential College, didn’t realize how much that thin piece of cardboard would change her college experience.

The bookmark was for betterworldbooks.com, which sells used books and donates the profits to reading and literacy charities.

Shortly after finding the bookmark, Simmons organized a Better World Books drive at the University to collect old texts for Books for Africa, a charity that provides books to 26 African nations.

“I don’t know how many books we collected, but it was difficult seeing as we had to organize a campuswide book drive by ourselves,” she said.

Simmons went on to organize more drives in her sophomore year. She worked through Better World Books to assist a local chapter of Room to Read – a group that helps establish schools and libraries in Asia – and the Golden Key International Honor Society.

Better World Books was started in 2003 by three friends after they graduated from the University of Notre Dame. Co-founder Chris Fuchs said he and his friends stumbled onto the idea of selling used books online during their senior year because they were strapped for cash and without job prospects.

Fuchs said he and his friend sold almost all of their used textbooks, as well as those of their roommates.

“We realized we were onto something,” he said.

The next spring, they ran a campuswide used textbook drive to support a community-learning center affiliated with Notre Dame, collecting 2,000 textbooks and raising $8,000 for an after-school reading program.

The Mishawaka, Ind.-based company calls itself a “socially responsible bookstore” for its charitable economic and environmental contributions.

The company has raised more than $1.3 million for 70 different education and literacy charities since 2003.

The company has donated more than 425,000 books to Books for Africa for post-secondary education and more than $80,000 to the National Center for Family Literacy.

Aaron King, Better World Books’s Great Lakes regional director, said the state of Michigan donated between 15,000 and 20,000 books last year. More than 30 colleges in the state participated.

King said he hopes students at the University, who gave a total of 1,000 books last year, will be more proactive in donating books this year.

“We’d like to see 6,000 books donated,” King said.

That would be 2,000 more than the total they’ve collected since 2003.

“In the fall of 2002, back when we were just getting started, I remember parking a 24-foot truck right on South State Street as I loaded boxes of books into the back of a Penske truck,” Fuchs said.

The company never throws a book away and strives to get the maximum value out of every book donated, King said. Books that cannot be sold are recycled. To date, the company has recycled more than 5 million pounds of books.

Golden Key International Honor Society is planning a Better World Books drive on campus this year, but a date has not been set.

Better book drives

The University, with 1,000 books donated last year, ranks 15 out of the 32 state universities where Better World Books runs drives. Here are annual averages of a few that donated more:

1 – Michigan State University – 3,000 books

2 – Grand Valley State University – 1,500 to 2,000 books

3 – Western Michigan University – 1,500 to 2,000 books

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