One or more determined book vandals is at work in the town of West St. Paul, Minnesota, where staff from the Wentworth Branch of Dakota County Library report that at least five to ten books about the Holocaust have been defaced over the past several years. The public learned of the ongoing problem after a library patron recently checked out a book about Holocaust denial, but found the vandal’s opinion on what they called the “Holocult” written in black ink on the title page.
According to Wentworth Branch manager Murray Wilson, the latest defacement fits an established pattern that seems to suggest the books are being vandalized by the same person or a coordinated group. The handwritten additions are always in black ink, and occasionally the perpetrator has even pasted articles into the library books. Library staff do their best to cover up the vandalism with correction fluid or sticky labels, but some books have been so damaged that they had to be removed from the collection–which is probably just what the vandals want, of course.
Defacement of books and other materials is a fairly common problem in libraries, ranging from the fairly innocent scenario of a toddler going hog wild with a set of markers to the type of deliberate ideologically-motivated vandalism at issue in West St. Paul. Libraries with ample budgets do build in some funding for replacements due to theft, loss, and all types of damage, but repeated vandalism to “controversial” materials or entire collection areas can have a real impact on access for the general public when the library is unable to replace the items yet again. Moreover, it’s not always easy to identify and bill the perpetrators if the vandalism is not discovered right away, or if the item was defaced inside the library without being checked out.
Last year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom started tracking hate crimes in libraries due in part to the defacement of seven books about Islam and the Koran in the collection of the Evanston (Illinois) Public Library. While gathering books in that subject area for an upcoming program presented in conjunction with Northwestern University’s Middle East and North African Studies department, a librarian discovered that someone had scrawled swastikas inside the covers along with messages such as “hatred cover to cover.”
The cases in both West St. Paul and Evanston are also strongly reminiscent of a much more widespread incident in 2014, when someone managed to rip pages out of 300 Holocaust-themed books in 38 libraries throughout the Tokyo area. A 36-year-old man was arrested in that case, although the news trail seems to go cold after that and it’s unclear if he was convicted.
Unfortunately, the main methods available for libraries to stem ideologically-motivated vandalism also tend to raise privacy or access concerns that affect all users. For instance, libraries can place certain materials into restricted collections where they must be requested with a patron card, or require that certain items only be consulted on-site. Librarians are understandably loathe to adopt such methods, but it’s always disheartening when one patron with a vendetta takes it upon themselves to deface materials that belong to the whole community.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.