People who write in library books

As part of the research for my book, I have borrowed a huge number of books from my university library. Many of them are decades old, sometimes going back over a century, and some are quite rare. I am sincerely grateful that my library is stocked with them and that the library staff is so helpful and thus make my life easier. So I get infuriated when I find that people have scribbled all over some books, such as underlining sections and inserting comments and exclamations and other editorializing in the margins. Some have done it in pencil that can in principle be erased, though the extent of scribbles can be daunting. Others have done it in ink.

In one book two leaves had actually been cut out. That this was a deliberate act was obvious from the fact that the cut was neatly done. No doubt the culprit wanted to retain the words on the page but was too lazy to copy them out. It is an old book, published in 1931 in which the pages themselves are small in size so that each page contains just about 200 words. It would not have taken much effort to copy out the words by hand. I know, because I copied out large chunks for my own reference. But the pest who did this clearly did not care that the book was ruined for others. This was particularly aggravating to me because I wanted to quote a passage but the last part was continued on a cut page. Fortunately, I managed to find the book on Google Books where they show sample pages of books and they had two of the missing pages but not the other two.

Why would you write things in a library book that you are going to return, since you will lose those notes anyway? I don’t even write in books that I have purchased for my own use. This may be because books were expensive in Sri Lanka and were commonly seen as a precious shared resource. There was a thriving second-hand book trade and the re-sale value of a book depended on its condition. At one time people would come to your house with books and you could exchange books that you had for books that they had plus a small fee. It was a kind of small-scale, private, for-profit, mobile library and very convenient. The stock was almost entirely popular fiction.

The librarian at my school was an old curmudgeon who adopted the practice of examining returned books before re-shelving them to see if the borrower had written on them and punishing them if he found any scribbling by schoolboys. We discovered that he did this because his nickname was ‘Polecat’ and one student had decided as a joke to write in the Index at the back ‘Polecat-Library’ but was immediately found out and roundly reprimanded.

As a result of this experience growing up, I treat books very carefully. I never dog-ear pages to indicate where I’ve stopped, using bookmarks instead. I don’t fold back paperbacks but open them as little as possible to avoid damaging the spine. If I want to mark a passage or note something, I paste those little colored Post-It notes that peel off easily. I do this with library books too when I don’t want to stop reading but want to note a passage to return to it later and make notes. Then I peel off these sticky notes before returning the book.

People who write or otherwise deface library books are like graffiti writers or vandals who randomly destroy things just so that others cannot enjoy them. I am opposed to the death penalty but am willing to consider it in two cases: those who park in handicapped spaces without having the need to and those who write in library books. Both these are undoubtedly jerk moves, acts that even the perpetrators know are wrong but do them anyway because they think it is a trivial offence and they just don’t care that others are inconvenienced.


  1. says

    It would not have taken much effort to copy out the words by hand

    Back in the 70s the university library had copy machines on every level, for exactly that purpose. 5 cents a sheet. I know, because I made a backup copy of my D&D 3 book set and it took me an hour and cost a whopping couple of dollars. Then, I dropped the stack getting onto the bus… But that’s another story.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    My university also had copy machines everywhere.
    They also had signs posted warning that we were all volating copyright laws.
    Did not even slow us down.

  3. says

    There is only one crime I would bring back hanging for….

    BTW have you noticed that much of the highlighting done in books indicates the passages that are un important, and should be ignored: I suspect it’s a form of redaction.

  4. cartomancer says

    As an historian I actually quite like the custom. A lot of insights into medieval scribal culture can be gleaned from marginalia and impromptu commentary. I remember one exhibition at the Bodleian library where I was able to peruse John Milton’s own copies of the plays of Euripides, and his annotations tell us a lot about how he engaged with the material in them when writing his own Paradise Lost. Admittedly the majority of additions are rather less edifying.

    Perhaps in a thousand years’ time future historians will be looking at our annotations to gain an insight into the culture of reading in the early 21st century?

  5. flex says

    The marginalia doesn’t bother me as much as the highlighting does.

    But as far as pages cut out of books, as a bibliophile searching for specific articles, I’ve found that there are on-line sellers who will sell only the pages you are looking for. I’ve wondered how they get 3-4 pages from a book, and I’ve feared that they are slicing them out of good books rather than having damaged copies of the books and then piecing out the good parts. It would be even worse if they are slicing the 3-4 pages they are selling from library books.

    Since I don’t know the origin of those pages, when I end up getting the pages rather than the entire book I never purchase from them again. For two reasons. First, for the amount I paid (usually $10-$15) I would expect the entire book. Second, because there is now an incomplete book out there which was potentially damaged only for my benefit. That bothers me.

  6. says

    When I was a kid, a friend of my father was quite a bibliophile, and had a rather amazing collection of books. I remember looking at an early edition of Diderot’s Encyclopedie, which had been owned by Voltaire, and was covered in margin-notes in Voltaire’s tiny handwriting. Sometimes -- though rarely -- I don’t mind when people write in books.

    A few years ago I got a used copy of “50 shades of gray” so I could see what the fuss was about, and it had notes in it from someone who had read it. The notes were by far the best part of the book; the person writing them was obviously enticed but puzzled and was trying to figure out (as I was) what all the fuss was about.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    For books that I own, I routinely dog-ear pages with maps to find them more easily (among other indignities).

    F’rinstance, after reading a (personally owned) copy of ‘s Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, I wrote on the page facing the inside back cover (surely better-informed bibliophiles have a name for that (ultimo-verso?)) a list of over two dozen important stories left out.

    But for taking notes, I tend to tear small sticky notes into narrow strips and put them on the page I want to quote, sticking way out if the quotable bit comes at the top of the page and way down for the bottom. I don’t always get around to the transcriptions, so have a stack of books with multiple little yellow flags waiting for the right combination of leisure, energy, and inclination.

  8. mnb0 says

    “I don’t even write in books that I have purchased for my own use.”
    My books on chess openings contain lots and lots of notes, because it’s incredibly handy. One time I sold a few to my chessclub, but I bought them back at the first occasion.

  9. blf says

    As others have noted, marginalia — both historical and relatively modern — can be interesting, due to the content and/or provenance (when known). This can sometimes also apply to underlining, but like others have said, not so much to crossing-out or highlighting. I speculate the difference is crossing-out and highlighting can obfuscate / hide the book’s text, whereas marginalia (and underlining) shouldn’t.

    However, none of that means any of it should be done to a shared resource — such as a library copy — and probably not to a rare edition, even when privately-owned. And cutting out pages and similar destructive acts is simply a no-no for a shared copy, and probably not such a good idea for rare editions (albeit there are possibly reasonable cases of cannibalizing (badly-)damaged editions to reconstruct (or conserve(?)) a full(er) edition).

    I myself sometimes make marginalia (and doodles!) in my own books, but have been doing this less and less over the years. As far as I can now recall, this started when I was either bored out of my skull in class, or wanted to ask the teacher a question but didn’t want to forget the question before I got a chance to ask.

    And yeah, back in the day, there were copy machines on every floor in the library.

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