Notes from the margins: the surprising things librarians find in books

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All libraries experience vandalism and theft but public libraries particularly witness some truly remarkable behaviors – cows leaving behind their mark, removal of the word ‘blood’, and scribbling over ‘naughty’ words to name a few.

It started with Richard Ford. I like modern American fiction – modern New Zealand too – and have been rereading some of the names that shaped the genre. I’m Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You, borrowed from the library, opened to the title page, and there it is. A neat hand, in pencil, with a warning. “If you are depressed and want to be that way, read this.”

Here’s a mini-novel in itself. Someone so moved that they issued a warning. Angry? Sad? Or, well, depressed? Notes added to books is nothing new. I buy few books, but read a lot – hence libraries. I know some folks love their collections and get great pleasure from the book cases that dominate their homes. I feel the same way about music, and have hundreds of CDs, all of which get played. But the operative word in CD is ‘compact’. Our house is full of stuff, and as we get old, I ponder on which skips it will end up in. I have a few books that travel house to house – concise oxford, atlases, guides to NZ place names and wildlife, illustrated guide to electric guitars –just the essentials. But not thousands of dollars of books.

Hence borrowing. Fiction, some biography (mainly musicians), some observational (please come back, Joan Didion), bit of poetry, bit of history. But you do get lots of extras in what you check out. Those people who mark that certain page to show this has been read already. Those people who become outraged by spelling – especially American, even when the book was published in the US. Or the sentence structure, even when their alternative would get a fail.

Fiction and non-fiction get participants. Alternative views of history and politics freely offered, even if not invited. Or accepted. Unless a similar soul gets excited and joins in with a complementary or alternative theory that runs over the next pages. Public librarians report that the usual hot topics – politics, gender identity, religion – cause particular excitement.

All libraries experience vandalism and theft, as do bookshops. Public libraries are hit particularly hard, with some truly remarkable behaviours. Not all of this has been regarded as shameful.

In 1962 the British writer and playwright Joe Orton and his boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell embarked on a guerrilla action against middle-class conformism. They stole books from Essex Road library in Islington, London and altered their jackets, replacing the originals with surreal images of their own, often sexual. They sneaked the books back on to the shelves and lurked nearby to watch reactions. They also cut art images from volumes, which they used for home decorations. After a prolonged effort to catch them, the pair got six months in jail each, plus hefty ends. Years later, some of the surviving books defaced by the pair were placed in a special Orton collection, and celebrated as a remnant of a brilliant – if turbulent – ​​life.

There are aspects of ‘participation’ that NZ Public Librarians agree on – based on an informal survey:

1. Marking a book as read already – take your pick on any page under 40. Often a squiggle, or a ring around the page number. Harmless. Found more in large-print books favored by older readers.

two. Not so harmless – cutting bits out. Even when libraries offer free photocopies of a few pages, cutting wins on points. Menus, photos, interior decoration hints are all game to some.

3. Fairly harmless – ESOL books coming back with their word quizzes filled out. Easily erased by staff, and a job well done by the book.

Four. Systematic confusion: changing chapter headings, messing with the index, renumbering pages, gluing in new images. Despite Joe Orton, not appreciated.

5. Censoring earthy language. Scribbles over the ‘naughty’ word, and – in some cases – writing redemptive passages from scripture in the margins.

6. The mentally ill who cross the line in the acceptance and welcome they are typically shown.

A recent extreme example took place in a metro city and lasted some years. One individual had an obsession with the word ‘blood’, and she would black it out when she saw it in print. She would turn anything with a woman’s image on the cover to face inwards. She would produce newsletters of her own warning of Nazi spirits invading the city, and the need to repent, and slip them between pages. When asked to discuss what she did, she became so angry that some staff hid behind locked doors. Then, one day, she stopped coming back.

Luckily such examples are rare but most public libraries have their visitors who are different and they do a fantastic job in extending dignity and respect to all.

7. The predictable and very human ways material is damaged on loan: dogs, water, coffee. (The prize goes to the regional library who had a fellow who would take a book to milking. Yep – a cow did what a cow will do.) And if not damaged – enhanced. Cook books that come back in an odiferous state with splashes and smears, communications from the kitchen.

As for aspects of ‘participation’ that academic librarians agree on:

1. Leaving Post-its in a book. This seems to have replaced an earlier fashion for highlighter underlinings. Hours go into peeling them out but they are less troublesome than the highlighters for the next reader.

two. Students who create their own wee collections of books buried out of sequence, so they have easy access to macroeconomics hiding in botany. Or hide them under or on top of the stacks.

3. The academics who feel free to annotate others’ work who publish in ‘their’ field. vigorously. Sometimes viciously.

Four. Those who contribute considerately, popping their bit on a piece of their own paper, slipped between the pages. One medical librarian opened a bound volume and a note fell out. “If you are reading this, you have no life.” Kafka could not have done better. Was it written by a disillusioned student? A burnt-out registrar? I have seen a photo: tidy hand, no apparent despair, but what a statement.

Research libraries have their own stories, and I can do no better than refer to blog entries by Martin Lewis (Library Manager) on Te Papa’s website.

Wonderful tales, including images of Elsdon Best’s thoughtful annotations in others’ work. (Mr Best being the first professional NZ ethnographer.) In this context, expert talking to expert has a new flavour. But, speaking of flavour, the unexplained but clearly human bite from an NZ atlas from 1864 needs more attention. Along with the excerpts covering entry to libraries if you have an infectious disease. (Back to the future and all that – many libraries are presently spending significant sums on security at the door, as the Vaccine Pass mandate is observed.)

What does all this add up to? Nothing bad. Libraries circulate stock, and understand that in real life things happen. Humanity presents in various forms, and each of these forms matter even if some manifestations present challenges. This is deeply important in a society where everyone has their part, and their haven space, where they are welcome.

And for the physical stock, heritage libraries, and digital repositories, even the often-criticized internet archive, preserve pristine copies for the record. In your library of choice a comment in the margin, a word of horror or glee added to page 74, a sweet drawing of a fish on the inside cover. Not really more than signs of life.

And what about Richard Ford? He may make you smile, he may make you squirm, he may make you cross, but he won’t make you depressed – unless you want to be.

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