The case of the missing library book

A whodunit by Nelson Library's Anne DeGrace gets to the bottom of it

A small-town US library is baffled by the disappearance of more than 400 books. Another library discovers half their children’s DVDs have gone unaccountably missing. Still another finds the bulk of its missing CD collection has turned up mysteriously at a local pawn shop.

And so the plot thickens.

Unfortunately, it’s not a mystery novel. It’s what goes on in libraries everywhere to greater and lesser degrees — including ours. Look up library theft online, and the stories are all there.

I like to think there is a special place for people who steal from libraries, one that involves reading 999 pages of a thousand-page mystery, only to find the final page is — mysteriously — missing. People who steal from libraries should never get to know whodunit.

This fictional place is also for the people who deface library books by adding their personal commentary in the margins, something we’ve seen in controversial books from family planning manuals to the Bible. Even your favourite novel could be victim, when, on page 250 of your 274-page novel, a happy scribbler tells you that it was Doctor Dewey in the Library with a Barcode.

Before the Nelson Library had security gates installed, a lot of stuff walked out. I particularly remember my dismay when I realized a gorgeous book on John Singer Sargent — a gift from Steve Martin after Roxanne had filmed here — had just walked out into the night under the arm of a friendly, talkative, middle-aged man, never to return. At the time, it was a drop in the bucket. Time and again we’d go to find something for a patron, only to find it “missing.”

The security gates were a big investment, but they’ve been worth it. Much less has gone “missing,” and we’ve even caught a few thieves. Mostly, the security gates are a deterrent, which is fine with us. We don’t really want to catch anybody, we’d rather they just borrowed the books like most library people and brought them back when they’re done. Even those who don’t have a library card are free to use library materials on-site; there’s just no reason to steal, because it all belongs to all of us.

For libraries, theft presents a conundrum even Sherlock Holmes would find daunting. If “lost” items are replaced, it comes out of the library’s finite acquisition budget, which means fewer new items for library patrons to enjoy. And if they aren’t replaced, they’re no longer there for anyone. Elementary, my Dear Watson? If only it were.

We recently installed brand new security gates, a necessary upgrade made possible by your tax dollars, the better to keep thieves at bay and mysteries of missing books under control. We have a collection we’re enormously proud of.

We are fortunate to have a wonderful membership of library-users with honesty and integrity, who value libraries as the vital resource they are, and who understand the concept of sharing. Libraries are about as community-minded as you can get. The Nelson Library is here for everyone to use.

So you can check out that mystery, and when you get to the last page, you’ll get to know whodunit.

And who didn’t.


Anne DeGrace’s column is featured in the Star every second Friday