Pages sliced from a binding. Whole text blocks removed. Maps stolen. We don’t like to talk about the seedy side of what happens in libraries, but the fact is that theft and mutilation is an occasional thing that we have to deal with. No one likes to talk about it, and some feel we shouldn’t go public when it happens, but I think this is important information to share so that others can learn from our experience.
Several years ago we discovered a problem with a certain section of the collection. We found that a serial set was being mutilated, sometimes a few pages were taken, sometimes whole chapters. I looked through that section of the stacks and found a few more books that were also missing material. Clearly this person was interested in a particular subject and rather than checking the books out, s/he decided to just take the parts they wanted. Through Interlibrary Loan we were able to borrow copies to make replacement pages, then we moved the items off site in hopes that it would deter the problem.
A couple of weeks ago while preparing the newspapers for the renovation, one of my staff members found a few envelopes stuffed into a newspaper box. Obviously the materials weren’t related to the newspapers so she brought them to my attention. I immediately knew what they were based on my previous experience. We had accidentally found the perpetrator’s stash. I went back to the stack area where this subject matter is located and found several more books that were missing pages. While we have some clues we won’t ever know beyond a shadow of a doubt who did this or when it happened, but we can learn from the experience and talk about how to identify and prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
Identifying missing materials
It can be difficult to notice when a book has had a single page or image removed, these are normally found later when the next person checks the book out. But when whole chapters or textblocks are taken, there are tell-tale signs. Notice the gaps in the top two books in the image on the left? Those are missing whole chapters. The bottom book is missing its entire textblock and the boards have taken on a “floppy” feeling and trapezoidal shape.
Paying attention is the best thing anyone who works with the collection can do to identify missing materials. Reading room staff can watch patrons use the collections and check for completeness when items are returned to the desk. Circulation Desk staff can quickly and easily look for obvious gaps in a text block as they check items in or out. Re-shelving staff often know the collections better than most of us and can watch for unusual activity such as thread or bits of paper on the floor, or oddly shelved books or books stashed in places they shouldn’t be. We rely on staff members to be vigilant and bring these problems to our attention and truly appreciate it when they do.
We do a lot in the library to prepare materials for the stacks. We implement policies and procedures to both deter theft and alert the proper authorities when it happens; and when it does happen we work with local and sometimes national used-book dealers who may be the first to encounter them outside the library. Loose materials are identified in the item records and a note to “check for materials in pocket” alerts desk staff to check that the item is present; security strips and RFID tags are applied to books and a/v materials and will set off an alarm if not deactivated at the Circulation desk; loose-sheet publications are bound to keep the pages together and to deter theft, etc. There are additional methods we employ that are designed to go unnoticed by the layperson. All of these methods help keep books on the shelf and available to researchers.
For the items we found recently, I continue to work on reuniting the missing parts. Hopefully some of these books can be made whole again and be put back into circulation.