Sullivan Free Library's Blog

August 3, 2010

Please Don’t Steal Our Books!


For him that stealeth a book from this library, let it change into a
serpent in his hand & rend him.  Let him be struck with palsy, & all
his members blasted.  Let him languish in pain crying aloud for
mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sink to
dissolution.  Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that
dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of
hell consume him forever & aye.

Monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona

As evidenced by the above curse, the theft of library materials is a problem that has been around as long as books have existed.   According to E.C. Abbott, author of an article titled People Who Steal Books , curses were commonly used weapons against book thieves in the Middle Ages, when a book most likely only existed in one copy. Curses may not be as effective as more modern security systems, but there is a certain emotional satisfaction in casting a curse.

I’ve kept the above quote on my desk for many years, mostly for comic relief, but there are times when I wish I could make it actually work.  As a librarian with a finite budget for new book purchases, it is frustrating to have to buy materials more than once because the original item is lost, stolen or missing.   (On the other hand, I LOVE it when I have to replace a book because it just plain wore out.)

There are certain materials that are more likely to be stolen than others.

1)  Books on the occult, sexuality and homosexuality regularly disappear from library shelves–often  as a result of people trying to impose their own values and moralities on others.  Every year when I start to pull books for a “Banned Book Display” in September, I find that I have to replace copies of certain classic banned titles  because they are missing.  (Note to those who steal these particular books:  I am just going to replace them anyway, so don’t bother!)

2) Test preparation books and car repair manuals often go missing or are never returned.  The people who need/want to use these books are often not regular library users and come in just for these items and never return them. Unfortunately, these are expensive items to replace.  Fortunately, we now have an online resource, Learning Express, that allows people to access test preparation materials and take practice test.  Learning Express is available at:

3) Items that are small and easy to conceal in clothing in backpacks:  DVD’s, VHS tapes, music CD’s

Items that one might consider high on the most stolen list–bestsellers–are actually among the safest items in a library, because they have long request lists and are never actually ON the library shelves to be stolen,  they are held behind the desk until they are picked up by the next person on the list.

The introductions of online auction like Ebay and book-selling sites like Amazon have led to an increase in rare and valuable books being stolen from public and academic libraries.  Libraries have learned to evaluate older materials and adjust the inventory records to indicate the true value of items so that a book originally purchased in 1962 for $1.75 won’t be checked out by a patron who then can “lose” the book and pay only that replacement cost, while potentially making much more by selling it.

We do not yet have a security system in place in our two buildings.  We try to place easily stolen items within view of the circulation desk to help cut back on theft, but it’s frustrating to note the number of DVD’s and music CD’s that do go missing.   Especially frustrating are the series of popular television shows.  It is expensive to purchase the whole run of a series only to find a few months later that several seasons have disappeared.  Because of the length of time involved in watch a season of a show, patrons often have to wait several months to borrow the missing seasons from other libraries.

While I don’t really (most days) wish for the ability to cast curses, I do wish I could zap people with the insight to see the effects of their actions on others and the library as a whole.


Abbott, E.C. “People Who Steal Books”


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