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IF YOU WANT to help put books on school library shelves, dig into your pockets, not your old boxes of books.

For libraries to once again become learning centers in public schools, their books must support what's being taught in the classroom. A pile of donated books simply cannot satisfy that essential requirement.

We've heard of plans under way for book drives in response to our recent editorial on the sorry state of Baltimore City public school libraries. Such drives represent the best of intentions, and they certainly have a role in promoting literacy.

Donations of books to families, shelters and after-school programs are worthy endeavors. But they are no way to build a school library collection.

There's a better way to get good books into the hands of Maryland's neediest students.

Donate money for book purchases.

Sure, schools probably won't get the same number of books they would if "gently used" books were collected. But for libraries to succeed, those who want to help must stop putting quantity ahead of quality.

Organizers could go a step further and make contact with a recipient school's librarian to discover her "wish list" or any special needs.

Literacy and learning have no better sales pitch than a good book.

Yet when book drives become a panacea, our best intentions betray us. Maryland's children deserve better.

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