Tag Archives: library thefts

Nothing to See Here

Mutilated books often come to Conservation for repair. We don’t normally like to talk about it, because no one wants to admit that it happens. It does, and it happens in almost every library. Luckily it doesn’t happen often. This week we had a book sent to us from the Stacks Maintenance unit. On the shelf it doesn’t look very damaged. The head is a bit torn, and it would normally go into the commercial binding workflow.

books on a shelf
Nothing to see here. Keep moving along.

The real problem was exposed when we opened the book. It was missing about 3/4 of the text block. All the pages had been cut out with what looks to be an X-acto or similar tool.

Book with missing pages

Before we did anything we needed information. We went to the stacks to look around. This book is shelved well above eye level on the top shelf. There were some paper fragments on the floor. We looked at the items around this one to see if other books were also vandalized but we didn’t find any further damage. Our next step was to ask some questions to determine if we could figure out what to do.

Putting on our Mr. Holmes hat

First we looked at the circulation record and determined that it had not circulated since 2013. That means the damage could have been done any time in the last seven years. More information was needed.

Next we talked to the Director of Security and Facilities to determine how often the stacks are swept, trying to figure out if this might be new damage or old. The stacks have been closed to patrons since March, it is unlikely that this was done during that time as our Security personnel are very good at their jobs.

We then talked to the Stacks Maintenance Supervisor. Amazingly one of their Student Assistants was working in that area and discovered the book was missing pages. The paper bits fell on the floor when she removed the book from the shelf. She took it back to Shelf Maintenance where staff looked at the item record. There were other copies available, and as we also noticed, they determined it hadn’t circulated in seven years. So they sent it to us for evaluation, which is the standard workflow for items like this.

What did we learn?

First, there is no way to determine if this was new or old damage. It is very unlikely that this was done in last nine months because of the Covid-19 lock down. This could have been on the shelf in this state for a very long time. There is just no way to definitively tell when this happened.

Finally, and most importantly, we learned that our system works. Our colleagues in Stacks Maintenance have a big job. Beyond re-shelving books they alert us to environmental issues such as leaking pipes, and they find damaged books when they are returned or at the shelf like this one. They are on the front lines when it comes to the preservation of our collections. We are so thankful for them and their student assistants.

What now?

Conservation routinely replaces missing pages. However, we normally cap that at ten pages per book. Beyond that number and we want Collection Development to review it, so we will send it to them for evaluation. Both Conservation and Stacks Maintenance will continue watching the area but we are fairly certain this is a singular incident.

A Taboo Subject

Removed pages
A found stash of removed pages.

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.

Books with missing pages.
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.

Preventive measures

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.