November 7, 2016
The skeletons (and rare and extremely overdue books) in your closet
by Ryan Harrington
Last Friday was Melville House’s bi-annual Librarian Preview Day. It’s a great time — we close the office and bookstore early, pop some corks, eat some cookies, and talk about all of the fly titles coming to a library near you next spring and summer. It doesn’t take an event like this to remember that librarians are some of the most decent, charming, and noble creatures to walk this earth.
And yet library patrons just walk all over them, don’t they? Case in point, the story about recently discovered rare books that are over fifty years overdue to the London library. The eightenneth-century volumes on plague, astrology, and witchcraft (oh my!) were discovered by an antiquarian bookseller who’d been called upon to assess the book collection of a recently deceased Londoner. It is likely that the books were checked out back in the 1950s.
It happens right? You get busy. The trains have service changes. It rains. For one reason or another, you just can’t get back to the library for fifty years. You rack up some fines, which you ignore because that’s how all of the problems in your life go away.
But, there is something more nefarious afoot here. Upon examining the volumes, evidence suggests an attempt was made to remove the library’s identificatory material from the books.
The bookseller-turned-forensic scientist Patrick Marrin is the man on the case, and Alison Flood at the Guardian had a chat with him about the incident:
“People will use sandpaper to do this and make holes in the pages, or just tear out the pages — they had been mutilated,” said Marrin. “But one of the volumes consisted of a lot of little pamphlets and single sheets, on which I found one complete stamp. I know the London Library never sells anything, so it was their property.” The discovery in a locked cupboard did suggest some kind of guilt, he continued. “It’s difficult to say how and when [the attempts to remove the stamps] happened, but it’s quite likely the books were going to be sold.”
That’s a hell of a racket. And while the library has stated that they never give up on missing books, they also don’t hold their breath (to paraphrase) while awaiting their return. So it is a rare treat when someone like Marrin discovers and returns the missing treasures.
The library, for their altruistic part, will not fine the family of the deceased (their ultimate reward is just getting the books back). And they insist that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you should buck up and return the book! You’ll likely be granted mercy and amnesty from this most understanding breed of human: the librarian.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.