Elegy for a Thousand Stolen Books

After the seven-year project of weeding my high school library, one task remained: inventory. I had avoided it for several years, reasoning that there wasn’t much point in carefully accounting for books I would probably discard anyway. If someone had saved me the trouble of weeding Your Future as an Airline Stewardess  by stealing it years ago, well, so much the better.

Scanning every item and uploading long lists of barcodes onto the main library computer took me, with the help of two assistants, three days. The last step commanded the computer to compare the barcodes on the shelf to those in the catalog, minus the ones for checked-out books, and generate a list of what was gone.

The report horrified and shocked us: 1,566 missing items in a collection of about 12,000. 

At first, I thought I’d done it wrong, that one of the three of us had somehow skipped a few shelves, or a range, or possibly a tenth of the library. I stalked the stacks, spot-checking different sections of the list, hoping for human, scanner, or computer error. No such luck. The errors were human, but they weren’t ours.

Over the next two months, the library clerk double-checked every book on the missing list, turning up a few hundred. The scanner had misread some barcodes, and several shelves of short fiction I had scanned myself just didn’t show up for some reason. But still, when all errors were accounted for, human beings had stolen well over a thousand books from our school library.

If you’re wondering how such a thing is possible in a modern library, with its anti-theft RFID tags and beeping security gates, then you are asking one of the right questions. The architect who designed the library when the school was built in the early 1960s had a taste for sunlight and air circulation, but a rather vague sense of how libraries work and still less understanding of the fallen nature of humanity. Wanting the library to be the heart of the school, he built it right in the center. When the bell rings between classes, hundreds of students and teachers rush through the two-story library to get to classes in other parts of the building.  (True story: when I started working here, the first line in the school newspaper article about the new librarian was, “You walk through the Library every day, but have you ever wondered what it’s for?”)  Not counting the two doors that lead out to an enclosed garden courtyard, my library has six exits, two of which are on the second floor.  The cost of an electro-magnetic or radio-frequency tag for every book in the library, plus six sets of detection gates, plus video cameras in front of every door, since I can’t be in six places at once when the alarm beeps (and am, in any case, an educator, not a security guard), would exceed the value of the collection. Technology, in this case, cannot be the solution. Perhaps psychology would help.

I studied the list of missing books, hoping to find patterns that would help me understand who was taking them and why, but the plundered books were all over the map. Some were books perennially stolen from libraries, which librarians just consider breakage: books about embarrassing family problems that no one wants to bring up to the front desk, books about Hitler, college guides, Malcolm X’s autobiography, anything remotely related to sex or drugs, anything by Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, or Herman Hesse (yes, still!), and any book about the occult, witchcraft, magic, or astrology. These were no surprise, although one might think that in the Internet age, less of a need would exist to sneak these books out of the library. Maybe it’s a rite of passage.

Some were books students would only use to write research papers, books about the Mexican War or Galileo. But why steal them? Our library has never charged late fines, and I always extend the due date on books for reports to the due date for the paper, anyway. Why not just check them out? And if you’re going to take them home without checking them out, why not sneak them back in when you’re done? What, exactly, are you going to do with that book about Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Point Plan after you hand in your paper?

Some of the books, I regret to say, were probably taken by teachers who, like their students, almost certainly meant to return them. A student did not pinch Teaching with the Brain in Mind or Your First Year as a High School Teacher, nor was it a teenager who walked off with the $40 vegetable cookbook and the Oprah’s Book Club edition of Anna Karenina. I have neither figured out the method, nor summoned the courage, to raise this aspect of the problem with my colleagues.

The largest category of vanished books consists of awesomefuncool books, including young adult fiction, pop culture, romance, humor, technology, graphic novels,and fantasy. When I started here, this library had zero kid-appeal. My predecessor bought books for student research and adult-interest genre fiction (which is why we have the entire oeuvres of Tom Clancy and Mary Higgins Clark through 2003).  One of my first challenges was to introduce books high school students actually wanted to read, so I ordered spinning racks for paperbacks and filled them with teen-friendly stuff that flew out the door. Circulation went up 400% (<—not a typo) in the first six months. The fact that so many of these books were stolen gives me a valuable piece of information: my students love the books they see on the shelves and displays, so much, in fact, that they want to take them home and keep them forever. But should I order more of it because they enjoy it so much? Or should I buy less of the most popular product in what my students apparently believe is the Free Bookstore?

And what to make of the truly inexplicable thefts?  Why would any student even want a book of criticism about Wyndham Lewis or Ford Madox Ford, much less long for it enough to sneak it out of the library under a jacket? Who purloined Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe by Daniel Hoffman? Doesn’t the person who lifted The Last Lecture feel incredibly guilty? Was someone made authentically happy by poaching every single one of the new books I’d bought about positive psychology?  And for the kind of kid who wants to read all of C.S. Lewis, doesn’t boosting Lewis’ books violate some sort of Commandment? Why nick Moby-Dick when your librarian would be so impressed with you for checking it out? And who, for the love of Gödel, swiped Discrete Probability?

And where are all these missing books now? Given people’s horror of throwing out books, I imagine that the pilfered books have migrated to the attics and basements of the booknappers’ parents. Years hence, the library will probably be reunited with Skateboarding is Not a Crime when it shows up in a box of moldy donations I’ll have to refuse politely.

I don’t know why people steal books from the library, other than that it’s the perfect crime, if a not-terribly-remunerative one. For my privileged students in this age of privatization, the problem may be their lack of understanding of a commons and of the impact on the community when shared resources are abused. Does a student whose report about El Greco has already been graded realize that the book she stole, then chucked under her bed and forgot, is the only one we had, and that the next kid who needs it can’t get it? Or does she just not care? Then, too, they have grown up in an era in which many cultural and entertainment products are instantly free for the taking, and maybe it irks them to spend the minute it takes to bring the book up front and check it out. Maybe adults’ bleating about the importance of reading has made them believe that if they are reading at all, even if it is only The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, they are doing a Good and Noble Thing, next to which the venial sin of stealing from the library pales to insignificance.

I’d bet all the dimes in the Xerox machine that few library thieves believe taking a book without checking it out is stealing. After all, they mean to bring the books back, and they do sometimes. Books I thought were missing mysteriously reappear on tables or on the wrong shelves. I even find them forthrightly returned in the book drop right at my desk, as if the culprits had no idea that there was anything unorthodox about their method of obtaining the books. Maybe there is a guilty pleasure in it, too. Libraries are such earnest, do-goody places, providing so much education, enlightenment and entertainment for free. Maybe all that virtue irritates a certain kind of kid and makes him want to stab back at it somehow, just as people pontificating about eliminating white sugar and refined grains from their diets make me long to take up smoking and Scotch.


I felt angry, frustrated and hopeless when I realized how many books were gone forever, and I stewed in those negative feelings for months. I avoided the tasks of deleting the books from the system and re-purchasing the ones that were still relevant and available. I haven’t yet communicated with the faculty or the student body about the magnitude of the problem. But I’m a teacher, and I can’t stay mad at kids forever for being immature and irresponsible because part of my job is helping them grow up.

So, I’ve decided to work with the character education committee, the student newspaper, and maybe the TV production students to reach out to the school community in the new year about the slow disaster that befell the library. I want to ask students to bring back what they’ve taken. More important, I want to encourage them to think about the resources we all share (not only in school), and about how thoughtless actions by a few individuals can harm something on which everyone relies. I want to educate their consciences to make better choices in the future.

In the end, the only anti-theft system that will stop books from disappearing from the library, and maybe save the human race from itself, is the one within in the hearts of my students.

P.S. Happy New Year, Perfect Whole readers!



This morning, the Library received a surprise: a box, waterstained halfway up, filled with 23 library books on a variety of subjects and two textbooks. The latest copyright date on any book is 1992, and no library book has a barcode, so these were taken from the Library sometime before the library was automated in the late 1990s. It was left near the security desk under cover of darkness.

Some of the books would still be usable (a coffee-table sized book of Van Gogh paintings, an illustrated history of 50’s & 60s rock n’ roll, a book of Freud criticism, Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties, a lovely illustrated edition of  A Child’s Christmas in Wales)  except that they’ve been sitting around someone’s basement for the past twenty years or so and smell so strongly of mold that I need to get them out of here before I have an asthma attack.

The box came with a label taped to it: Library Book Donations.  Thanks?

The message is definitely getting out there!  Sort of.


Thanks, once again, to  Neil Fein of the newly-redesigned Magnificent Nose, this time, for asking the right question, as a wise editor does.


About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at perfectwhole@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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18 Responses to Elegy for a Thousand Stolen Books

  1. St. Chris says:

    How do your findings compare with the theft rates at other school libraries?

  2. Helen says:

    Your blog was a very familiar read. I am always amazed that the thieves have such good taste in books. It is very frustrating when brand new copies get stolen. I have a similar layout to what you described: Five entrances to the library. But I keep all but one door locked and while it is not a perfect solution, it has helped. I have also placed the books read for English class behind my desk and if someone wants to borrow one of them, even for five minutes, I sign it out. As far as the other titles, I usually keep books marked lost for six months and when someone asks for one of those titles, I explain that it has been taken without being signed out. After six months, if the book still has not shown up I either replace it with a paperback copy or decide not to replace it. My most frequently disappearing book is Perks of Being a Wallflower. In that case I had to do the three strikes you’re out rule…. Once I have gotten a book three times and it still gets stolen, I admit defeat and tell them to go get it at the public library! Good luck and hopefully the problem will improve with time. I had a huge number of missing books the first time I did inventory but each now that the initial data has been corrected, the number of stolen books per year has leveled off to less shocking numbers.

    • I’ve lost count of the copies I’ve bought of “Perks”! I buy most of my books in paperback, anyway. You know what just disappeared? The entire works of P.C. and Kristen Cast (vampire romances, I believe). Every. Single. One. I just refuse to replace them. Also, that “Oh My Goddess” series. I don’t get it. Are the kids who read that stuff sophisticated enough to be embarrassed to be reading it? I wouldn’t have thought so.

      • Jenne says:

        I think they’re too lazy to go up and get it checked out. They probably grabbed them when they walked through the library on the way to class and ‘meant’ to return them asap.

  3. I am always going to my shelves to find books missing. I usually go through lockers at the end of the school years and recover about 20 books. Unfortunately at my school there are no consequences for overdue books until graduation so there really is no reason for them no to check them out.They also steal my periodicals and I will not renew the ones that are being stolen.

  4. Jane says:

    Maybe you could post something on your bulletin board asking, for example “Do you believe in co-operatives?” or “The Library is the original co-operative!”
    Add “If you have a book, it is not there when another student or teacher needs it. These books are missing from your library”.
    List the missing titles on the board, asking “Do you have any of these books at home?”

    • I’m making signs now to put around, most headlined with “Did You Know?” As in, did you know that x number of graphic novels were stolen from the library? We can’t keep buying them if people keep taking them. Please check out your books. I’m also putting slips in each of the 300 or so replacement books I got that will say something like, “This book is a replacement for a stolen library book. Please be sure to check it out at the front desk if you want to take it home.”

  5. Anne deFuria says:

    Don’t delete the records from your catalog, mark the item “stolen” (not ‘missing’ or ‘lost’, which are the only options in ours) and let that stand as a reproach to all who use the catalog. So there! Passive aggressive perhaps, but possibly a good reminder to future researchers. When I mention to our patrons that books get stolen, they are always completely surprised. And I am always completely surprised that they are surprised. Just one of the many misconceptions about libraries, librarians and librarianship that show the huge disconnect between our profession and the public we serve. Bitter much? Not really, every profession must have similar observations about human nature.

    • Yes, they are always shocked! The only possible explanation I can think of is that kids who talk to me, ask me for books, and bring them up to check out are an entirely separate group from my secret (i.e. illicit) library clientele. I’m not bitter, though. Not yet. Bemused, irritated, but not yet bitter.

  6. Thank you for this post! It is good to know I am not alone. Not sure of my stats, as I am in the midst of a major weeding. But I can tell you that I am replacing John Green’s Looking for Alaska for the second time since I was hired last March. Yes, this past March. I am also currently missing M.T. Anderson’s Feed, one copy of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Ally Condie’s Matched, and Lauren Conrad’s Style. All of which were purchased by me. Within the past 10 months. Frustrating, yes. I agree that the only anti-theft program is in the hearts of my students. I’m looking for a light-handed approach. Toying with the idea of posting “wanted” or “missing” posters. Would it be in too poor taste to post missing books on milk-carton shaped posterboard?

    • Yes, we’ve lost copies of those, too. I don’t see anything wrong with the milk carton. “Wanted, Dead or Alive” posters, maybe in an Old West font, might be cute, too.

  7. Barbara Connolly says:

    I wish I had seen this last week. I posted a similar problem on LM-Net last week. Since the beginning of the year I have recorded about 35 book titles that have been stolen since the beginning of this year and I have the same quandary about whether to replace them or not. I do not have a theft detection system and there is only one entrance in my library and they have to walk right past me. Someone suggested that no backpacks be allowed in the library and I hate to do something like that but I may have to. I sent out an email to students asking them to return any books not checked out with no questions asked and got nary a one back. Someone also mentioned the Missing posters which could be interesting, but I’m cringing at the time that will take to do. Keep me posted if you come up with any great ideas.

    • Sorry to hear about your books! I ordered a lot of replacements, and I designed bookmarks to place inside each one that explains that this book is a replacement for a copy that was stolen. It asks students to be sure to check this book out if they want to take it home, and to bring back any books they have at home that shouldn’t be there. I made a number of signs that I haven’t copied yet, different signs for different areas of the library where there has been a lot of loss (i.e. Graphic Novels). At the bottom of each, I have a sort of campaign slogan: “Check it Out…Bring it Back.” I know, it’s hardly “Coke is it!” but it was the best I could think of.

      I also put a much-edited version of the above essay into the PTA newsletter asking parents to check their bookshelves and under their kids’ beds. I’m hoping to get bagfuls of books back. Or, you know, maybe a few. The TV production kids are creating a public service announcement to be shown in homeroom, and when the Character Ed committee meets next, I’m putting this on the agenda.

      If nothing else, I want the kids to be aware that the Library is a public resource that is made less valuable to everyone by the thoughtless actions of a few. The kids who don’t steal books from the library seem genuinely shocked that anyone does. That’s the feeling I’d like to build on. Good luck! Let me know if you make any progress!

  8. Jenne says:

    FYI: ALA used to sell a “Return the Adventure” Indiana Jones poster encouraging people to return their books on time!

  9. Jen says:

    Yes, it’s funny how people always express shock when I tell them that items are stolen from the library. I’m never sure how honest I should be with patrons about theft. I wonder if publicizing library theft would just encourage people who perhaps thought it was harder to get away with! 🙂

    I’m the DVD buyer for my public library, so I’ve just had to inure myself. I will keep replacing Dr. Strangelove as many times as it gets stolen. Apparently, at any given time, 20% of our entire collection is missing. Not everything that gets marked missing is really gone forever, but still. Weirdest theft problem so far: someone keeps stealing Cooks Illustrated. We started keeping it behind the desk, but every time a staff person slips up and lets an issue out of their sight, it disappears. Our Cooks Illustrated thief is incredibly determined and vigilant! I’m almost ready to post a notice saying I will buy the person their own subscription if they’ll just knock it off.

    I will say that, with the advent of Google Image search, the problem of patrons cutting pictures out of books has all but disappeared!

  10. Pingback: A Year Has Passed | Perfect Whole

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