Observations on Marginalia in Library Books

MADISON, N.J. — THE graduate student thrust the library book toward me as though brandishing a sword. “This has got to stop,” she said. “It isn’t fair. How can I work on my dissertation with this mess?” As she marched out of my office, leaving the disfigured volume behind, her words stung — for the code of civility on which libraries depend had been violated. She was the third Ph.D. student in less than a year to bring me a similarly damaged volume, and each had expected me as the library director to turn sleuth, solve the mystery, and end the vandalism.

Someone had been defacing modern books containing translations of 16th-century texts. With garish strokes, the perpetrator had crossed out lines, then written alternate text in the margins. It did not take a Sherlock Holmes to observe that it was the work of a single hand, a hand wielding a fountain pen spewing green ink. The colorful alterations were not limited to a few pages but crept like a mold, page after page.

Some months later, in a faculty meeting, I noticed that the colleague sitting next to me was taking notes with a fountain pen. And the ink was telltale green.

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And no mention of charging that person the replacement costs?

If you don't penalise people for their behaviour when discovered then you are just letting them get away with it, and others will do the same as they know there are no consequences.

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