Public Comment

Library Foundation’s ‘Adopt a Book’ Campaign is Hurtful

By Lisa Handwerker
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:03:00 PM

Many families in the Bay Area’s large adoption community have challenged the Berkeley Public Library Foundation’s (BPLF) current “Adopt a Book” fundraising campaign slogan. We are deeply disturbed by this unfortunate choice of words. And while we recognize that the usage was unwitting and not intentionally hurtful, we are disappointed that the foundation has ignored our requests to remove the word “adopt” and replace it with an inoffensive yet equally effective one, such as “sponsor” or “read.” 

Many people do not appreciate that using references to adoption in this commercialized way, applied to inanimate objects or a monetary donation, can be psychologically devastating to adopted and foster children, and offensive to many in the adoption community. The first thing I would urge everyone to do is to take this conversation away from linguistic abstractions and, instead, reflect on the tragic human stories surrounding them. Many children in the foster-care system want nothing more than to have their own, permanent loving-forever families. Because the library is free, many of them are frequent visitors. How do you think they feel when they find out that for $25 a book can be “adopted,” when they themselves are not? 

There is a growing awareness throughout the country, and especially in places like Berkeley with deep traditions of humanism and tolerance, that “Adopt-a” language contributes to a larger phenomenon, “Adopt-a-Confusion,” with accompanying negative social stereotypes. National adoption educator Patricia Irwin Johnston, a 2008 White House Adoption Angel recipient, has spoken out eloquently on this issue. (For more information, see 

In response to a similar oversight brought to its attention many years ago, the Oakland Zoo was happy to change the language of its “Adopt-an-Animal Campaign” to “Sponsor-an-Animal.” This campaign continues to be successful. Numerous recent appeals to BPLF Executive Director Roxanne Figueroa and the entire board, including Abigail Franklin, who is one of the campaign creators, however, have been unavailing. 

On March 18, Beth Hall, director of the non-profit Oakland-based Pact, an adoption alliance, serving adopted and foster youth, wrote to Ms. Figueroa, “Adopt-a projects, with their gimmicky ‘adoption certificates’ and ‘adoptive parent’ labels, trade on the primary definition of adoption, which relates to family planning and family building.” While adults are clearly able to distinguish between the adoption of human beings and sponsorships “sold” as adoption, 3-to-12-year-olds often cannot. Research has shown that this can lead to stress and long-term low self-esteem of the foster or adopted child.  

Nationally, about six out of 10 people are touched by adoption and foster care; that proportion may well be higher in the dense, diverse East Bay. Thus, many are familiar with the pernicious effects of “Adopt-a” confusion. But many others are not. That such a beloved institution as our local library system has found itself on the wrong side of this issue is itself a measure of just how much public education work lies ahead in this important realm. 

Upset by the BPLF campaign, concerned citizens are circulating a petition for submission to Mayor Tom Bates and the Berkeley City Council. We urge the readers of this article to go to and add their name to the petition. You do not need to be a Berkeley resident to sign. 

In the meantime, we again ask the BPLF board publicly what we have repeatedly, and respectfully, implored them to address privately. As Peggy Scott, president of Families With Children From China—Northern California and co-author of this petition states, “This issue is not about overly sensitive or politically correct adults; it is about children who are sometimes vulnerable, and unable to speak for themselves. If you understand that this campaign will hurt even one child, why wouldn’t you just change the name?” The obvious solution is to set things right by editing out the hurtful “Adopt a Book” theme from the campaign. What is preventing the BPLF from doing this without delay?  


Lisa Handwerker is a medical anthropologist, and an instructor at California State University East Bay. For seven years she was a member of the Berkeley Community Health Commission. She is the adoptive parent of a kindergartner in the Berkeley public schools, and sits on her school’s Governance Council.