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Light-fingered librarians


Ah, spring. The peepers are peeping, the flowers are flowering, and the allergies are acting up. And librarians in schools are starting to prep for the end of the school year by doing inventory and getting back overdue books.

Over the past couple of weeks I've quietly listened as a number of library staff members have expressed dismay over "some" students' treatment of books, disregard for our circulation policies, and, of course, the number of books that have gone missing over the past year. Compared to the size of our student body, we have very, very few unhappy incidents. But they tend to be the ones on which we obsess.

I listen and say little. Perhaps because I can empathize a bit with the little miscreants. As a student, I took full advantage of my school library fiction collection, but never checked out a book. I had personal copies of all my textbooks in a closet at home as well. Imagine my chagrin when I came home after my first semester at college to find that my mother had returned all my personal collection of the school's books to the school. (She must have done it anonymously since I still was name a "distinguished graduate" many years later.)

It's been well documented that librarians themselves are among the worst book thieves. Here is one explanation:

Don't dismiss book theft as the work of a few ordinary crooks. Everybody does it. "People who steal books are some of the best people in the world," says Allan Robbins of the Alexandria, Va., library system. Journalists, seminarians, lawyers, doctors, teachers and especially librarians steal books, "which shouldn't come as any surprise -- they use them and value them," says William A. Moffett, head of the Huntington Library...

Perhaps this explains why I can't get too worked up when books go missing. I remember once having had an adolescent brain that somehow allowed book pilfering as well. I don't get too worked up when someone loses or accidentally damages a computer or phone either, since I have also done both of these thing. Stuff happens.

While I certainly believe we should be developing responsible library users, creating a welcoming experience that included empathetic library staff should take precedent. (See Libraries are just fining themselves.) Children and staff  should expect gratitude, not scorn, when returning materials to their school library.

One day, when all we read are ebooks, the theft and overdue issues will be moot. I live for the day.


  1. "Is there a klepto in the stacks?" New York Times, November 18, 1990.
  2. "People who steal books," CMJA-JAMC, December 11, 2001,
  3. "Protect your library the medieval way, with horrifying book curses" Atlas Obscura, November 9, 2016


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Reader Comments (2)

When we remodeled our HS Library 3 years ago, I opted to not put in security gates. I still have people question that decision. The losses are far less than the cost of the gates and if a "kid really wants to steal a book, it means they're readers!"

April 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLAMcCready

Never been a fan of security gates myself. No library I helped design included them for the very reasons you state.


April 27, 2018 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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