New York Public Library is a business but a business like no other. The library’s sole purpose is to transact in materials not money. Ours is a business based on trust. We lend. The library has millions of dollars in materials and we trust that the people who borrow these materials will return what they take. We hope in as good as condition as possible. Naturally there is wear, that is expected.
But there are people who use the library for other reasons. They want to destroy, deface and degrade. Our premise of trust is broken often by people who for selfish reasons harm what we offer simply because they can. Unless we catch them, the destruction continues. Sometimes we are lucky. Sometimes we can catch the person who covets the picture within a book and will willingly, guiltlessly slice it right out of the page. Vandalism of materials is a wordless crime and most of the time these wanton acts go unsolved, unpunished.
I work on the 3rd floor in the Language and Literature department at the Mid-Manhattan Library. The floor is often crowded with people on any given day. The aisles are often occupied with people browsing the shelves. For the most part everyone looks as they should, even the ones we know to be homeless. They too have a need for the library and it isn’t just to be in a safe environment. The ones I have observed seem to have an insatiable need to read and they do. I don’t peg them as wanting to hurt the library. Sadly there is another sinister element who occupies the floor and probably the others floors as well. They are people who look like you and I, but their motives are different from the rest of us at the library. They are out to destroy what many of us feel is sacred, trust.
The Dictionary of Literary Biography is a massive reference work. It occupies one side of a set of book shelves, consisting of many bays. It is a comprehensive and vital resource and consulted often. My colleagues and I have discovered the DLB to be not only a well used source for researchers, but by others whose sole purpose is to vandalize. For the criminal whose intent is harm, the DLB is a tableau waiting to receive its dastardly due.
The damage to the books is not outwardly noticeable. But if you are the unlucky one who happens to take one of the hurt books, the crime suddenly becomes horribly real. Upon opening the book you will discover the pages have been mangled, aggressively mangled. Page after page you discover the damage that has been put upon the book. Whatever the original purpose for consulting the DLB, or any other book that has suffered the same fate, is replaced with shock, sadness and frustration. The pages from the bottom are mashed and bent, scarred for life. The words that once laid smoothly across the clean white page are bent, buckled and ugly. Pages that soundlessly turned now make crinkled and sometimes tearing sounds. The damage done to these books and others is from the bottom up. Short, sharp jabs thrust into the pages and hundreds of pages are ruined. The brutality suffered by these book is violent and it is wrenching. I surmise the object must be something like a screwdriver. The destruction up these books and many others is awful. What is worse is the assault and destruction on our notion of trust, for those who work at the library and for those use the library.
Fortunately the DLB can also be found as an online database at the NYPL website. An NYPL library card is needed to access this database.
A tiny article from The NYTimes from 1875
A class project by Sandra Hart for the University of Alberta's MLS program
A blog entry by Tom Cremers from Google Groups - Museum Security, titled Theft and Vandalism: A Real Threat to Preservation