How to get on a librarian’s little list


Admit it, we’ve all got one.  A little list of the people who’d be first up against the wall if you were to stage a revolution.  Ko-Ko, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, puts it like this:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list – I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed – who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs-
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs-

And so forth, through a catalogue of people that he could quite happily cope without.  We all have our little (and not so little) niggles, and this is an attempt to catalogue the ‘little list’ of a typical library.  In reverse, but not particularly precise, order.

10.  Copyright violators.  Librarians believe very strongly in access to information and a lack of censorship, but most also believe in intellectual property, and the right of an author or composer (or similar) to be identified as the creator of a work and to receive some benefit for having done so.  Most categories of libraries have licenses that allow their users to copy within certain boundaries known as ‘fair dealing’ and it is just not the done thing to disobey these rules.  Outright plagiarism is particularly naughty.

9. Bookmark leavers.  Bookmarks are wonderful things, which allow a person to keep their place in a book without folding the pages down.  But library users across the world seem to insist upon using inappropriate bookmark items and on leaving them in the books when they return them.  Bills, birth certificates, family photographs and so on are fairly innocuous, but talk to a sampling of librarians and before long you’ll discover one who’s found a slice of bacon in a book.  Yuck!  The worst at my library was so unbelievably unpleasant that I’m not going to name it for fear of attracting some deeply odd internet searches.  Suffice to say that it is used by males, it was used and that its discovery inside a forensic science book was disturbingly appropriate…  The book was, of course, incinerated.

8. Inappropriate eaters.  You don’t munch your sandwiches in a library.  You just don’t.  Particularly not if there are rare or valuable books around.  Take a break and sit outside!  Many, many items have been damaged in libraries due to mayonnaise drippings or fizzy drink spillages.  Bottled water is OK, but people just don’t think.  A sure way to arouse the fury of a member of library staff is to let them catch you in the reading rooms with a pasta salad, a full cup of coffee or a pizza which has been sneakily delivered through the window.  Yes, it does happen.

7. People who think we’re omniscient.  I’m sorry, but in a medium-sized, large or enormous library, even the most devoted member of staff will not know the names and locations of every book in stock. He or she will not have read everything.  In fact, he or she probably hasn’t even seenevery single book.  ‘The blue book my tutor recommended’ could be one of thousands.  And although we may know more than your average person on the street, we are not walking encyclopedias, though you may be forgiven for thinking that we are walking dictionaries.  A member of library staff is not employed to know everything, but to know how to help you find everything out.

6. People who think we’re stupid.  This is with particular reference to the academic sector, where library patrons tend to treat the library staff with disdain, as intellectual inferiors.  Actually, Mister Undergraduate, almost all of our staff have at least one degree, and at least half of us have two or more.  Degrees don’t necessarily mean intelligence but please give us some credit and assume we have a brain.  A chief character trait of almost all library staff is the ability to absorb and retain information, so the longer we’ve worked in the profession the more general knowledge comes seeping our of our ears.

5. People who just don’t think.  Ask me ‘How long can I borrow a 7-day loan for?’ (correct answer: ‘One week.’) once and you become an amusing tale to tell at coffee break.  Follow it up with several similar questions and you become supremely irritating.  There is a certain extent to which it is true that the only stupid questions are the ones you never ask, but please take a second, maybe even two, to think before you open your mouth.  This is why I tend to demonstrate how to use the library on general principles, and show people how to search the catalogue using an example book that isn’t one they require immediately.  If I search for the first item on their reading list, many people can’t be bothered to take this and apply it to the next item, and I end up searching for everything they need.  If I show them the general principle, it forces them to think.  I will then stand by and watch while they do the next searches, and help them if they require, but I will not do the whole thing.  I am not a slave!

4. Book hiders.  You’ve come to the library without your ID and the staff can’tlet you borrow books, so what do you do?  If you want to wind the librarians up, you’ll hide the books somewhere so that nobody else can have them, and you’ll come back several days later, or forget to come back completely.  This also applied to people who hurriedly reshelve books in the wrong place, somehow thinking that they’re being helpful.  They’re not.  A book in the wrong place, deliberately or accidentally, is effectively a lost book.  There is no way that every shelf can be checked every day to see if there are any rogue items.  Even in the smallest of libraries, this would take up more staff time than there is available.  Only if a random library assistant happens to be shelving on the exact shelf where the books have been hidden or misplaced will they be found.  They will then take great pleasure in removing the books from their hiding place and thwarting the evil plans of the book hider.  However, they will also be cross at this waste of their time.  Hiding books behind, under or on top of shelves is even worse.  I have witnessed perfectly lovely members of staff turn into raging monsters when they discover a long-lost copy of an out-of-print translation of the Bible behind a box of issues of Marketing Week.

3. Insult shouters.  Call a library assistant a ‘stupid cow’ if you like, or rant at the inter-library loans clerk about how he doesn’t do his job properly.  Swear at the reference librarian or a shelver.  They’re only members of library staff after all, one of the lowest forms of humanity.  But be prepared.  Insult or hurt one member of staff, whether the smallest cog or the largest wheel in the well-oiled library machine, and the whole body of staff will have you as their enemy from that moment on.  Rudeness is never acceptable, whether you’ve had a good day or a bad day.  If you succumb, then from that moment on your queries will have monosyllabic responses, you will lose any possibility of the ‘extra mile’ that library staff will usually go, the rules will not be bent a single millimeter.  Do not underestimate the power of librarians.  These things are only the beginning of what they can do, and remember that libraries are strong tribal units, where each member looks our for each other member.  They may be at war with one another behind the scenes, but any external threat will bring them together instantly.  And librarians have longer memories than elephants.

2. Privacy invaders.  In the USA, the FBI have expressed anger at ‘radical militant librarians’ who refuse to hand over data about their patrons.  We are information professionals, and woe betide those who want to use information inappropriately.  Do not assume that we will bow down before scaremongering anti-terror rhetoric.  We think.  And we act.  We will not betray the trust placed in us.

1. Book vandals.  Without doubt, the greatest hate of library staff is those who would wilfully damage items of stock.  Throwing them around, bending spines beyond breaking point, making notes in purple pen in the margins.  Books are precious things, and their worth only seems to increase with the growth of the electronic world.  If you really want a librarian hit squad on your tail, then the best method is to employ a trick all too common at the Library of Doom.  Take a razor blade to a book or periodical and remove the chapter or article you require.  Don’t spent 60p photocopying it (within the bounds of copyright legislation, of course!), but destroy it.  Remove it forever from the library (journals are almost impossible to replace) so that nobody else can read it and so that the rest of the volume suffers damage as well.  Go on, see what we do if we catch you.  And we can catch you.  Many people are slightly scared of librarians at the best of times, but you really won’t like us when we’re angry…

So there you have it.  A little list of library offenders who never would be missed.  It’s not a good list to be on, and it’s practically impossible to get yourself off the list. You have been warned!  Any library staff or patrons want to add to the list, or protest their innocence?

  1. What do you rekon to people who have the habit of turning a page corner down as a placemarker?

    Just asking…

  2. On their own book? Not a problem. On a library copy, not a good thing, but it wouldn’t make my top ten of library evils. It does weaken the page somewhat, which can be a real problem with a book that gets used a lot. Also, once multiple pages have been usedin this way it does tend to distort the ‘natural’ shape of the book. A nice thin, non-staining bookmark is the best answer. A used receipt or bus ticket is good!

    Oh dear.  I’m getting really cranky, aren’t I?

    • floatykatja
    • August 28th, 2006

    So many of those points actually come back to just one thing: consideration (or lack of) for other people. When it comes down to it, you can do whatever you like with your own property, but if it doesn’t belong to you then you should treat it with respect.

  3. Do you have an outside book return? We get some extremely disgusting things placed inside ours. *sigh*

  4. We do, but we call it the outside book box. People are generally well-behaved with that one, but we did get a pair of knickers in it once!

  5. We got a packet of cherry tomatoes in our outside book bin. It was about the size and shape of some of the books, so we had this vision of person getting home, unpacking their shopping, and standing holding a book mournfully while their partner cries: ‘Where are the tomatoes? Didn’t I ask you to get tomatoes? You never listen to me, do you?’

    I have a thing about sellotape. Books must not be mended with sellotape. In less than a year it’ll go yellow (staining the paper), brittle (breaking the paper) and acidic (weakening the paper). And it’s a royal pain to remove, and you never can get the yellow stains off. Also, books must not be mended with gaffer-tape, electrician’s tape, ordinary glues, superglue, staples, or by having the damaged page ripped out altogether. And wet books really should not be pressed under a heavy weight to prevent buckling as they dry. The pages fuse together. Irredeemably. In fact, readers should not mend library books at all. They should hand them back saying ‘this book is damaged’. We will not kill them, books do get damaged, and as long as it’s not food-stains or scorch-marks, we’ll say ‘oh dear. Thank you for pointing it out,’ and send the book up so I can REALLY mend it without damaging it further. So it’s very difficult for me not to leap over the counter and throttle the reader who says: ‘Some of the pages were loose, so I sellotaped them back in for you!’

    • Lilian
    • August 29th, 2006

    I think your number 6 would be my number 1, with ‘Insult shouters’ coming a close second.

  6. How awful that the book with the disgusting bookmark had to be incinerated. I’m also shocked to read that people hide books and yell insults at the librarian – and the pizza through the window – oh my goodness! The worst thing I’ve done in a library is forget to switch my mobile phone off (accident!) but librarians never seem to like me very much. I once borrowed a book that started falling apart, took it back and said to the librarian on the desk: “This book is damaged,” and she screamed: “Put it in the Book Return Box!” several times until I ran away. When I put it in the Book Return Box it fell it bits, I still get an awful feeling about that but I tried.

  7. Oh, that’s not good. I apologise on behalf of my profession for that act of rudeness – I hope it hasn’t put you off libraries forever!

  8. Ooh, dear. A damaged book, in the Book Return Box. Not good. I am sorry too, Helen.

    And as Person in Charge of Glue at my library, I can tell you that the last, the very LAST place you want a damaged book is in the return box (or Dumpster of Destruction, as I call it). It only makes for more work for me and I have quite enought o do as it is. That person was totally wrong and totally rude. I can only assume they were have an Exceedingly Bad Hair Day.

  9. I suspect that this is also why our video rental place doesn’t have an outside return slot, though it would be handy for us as we often don’t make it there during opening times (as they close from 2-5.30 pm for lunch and ‘siesta’). I think they are afraid of what else might get pushed through the slot and, from what I’ve read here, they are probably right to feel this way.

    Re: dog-earing pages to mark your place … NOOOO! I won’t even do this with my own paperbacks and can’t imagine doing it with a borrowed library book. Likewise placing an open book face downwards when you leave it to read again later.

    And if I returned a library book that had started falling apart as I was reading it, I would certainly not just leave it in the Book Return Box where it might get damaged further, but would try to leave it at the desk – shame you had such a nasty experience whilst trying to do the right thing, Helen.

  10. I think that librarian must have been having a bad day. She was going apopleptic, it was totally out of proportion with mild-mannered me and a damaged copy of The Wives of Henry VIII. I used to pay $11 a year to be able to use that library but after that happened I let my membership lapse. But nothing could put me off libraries, Singing Librarian! I like the one near my house because even though it’s small they always order in nice books.

    I also meant to say, I hate it when people write comments in the margins of library books! Horrible! Who cares about their inevitable opinions on the writing? Grrrrrr!!!!

  1. September 1st, 2006
  2. December 1st, 2006
  3. June 15th, 2007
  4. November 12th, 2010

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