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!
UPDATE, FEBRUARY 1, 2012
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.