Same Books Keep Disappearing

Q: At my small, K-8 school, copies of certain books keep disappearing off of the shelves. It always seems to be the same titles, such as “Go Ask Alice” and “Smack” by Melvin Burgess (books dealing with sex and drugs). These books are in the Teen section of the library. I’ve replaced these paperbacks a couple of times already and I am beginning to think that someone in the school does not want them in the library. How do you recommend I handle this problem?

You may be correct. It may be that one or two people don’t want certain books in the library and rather than addressing this up front, they are choosing to steal them.

Just continue to replace those books. Make them available for circulation as fast as possible. How about ordering two copies of each, so you’ll be all set to replace them if these books vanish again? Or do you have a petty cash fund you can use to purchase them locally so that they can get back on the shelf as soon as possible?

However you replace them, keep these books in the library records, and take reserves on them, if anyone asks for them. Keep it business as usual, so to speak.

Let’s think about why this might be happening. Some thieves are censors. If they think it through at all, they think they have the right to decide on the behalf of everyone else what will be in the library. These thieves deliberately target and steal library materials they think have no place in the library in the first place. These will be materials with ideas, information or themes with which they disagree, or something making them uncomfortable. Rather than exercising their right to file an official complaint about an item in the library, they try to prohibit others from finding it instead. This behavior can come from both adults and students. We hope your school’s policy about official complaints also applies to students who have a concern.

The thefts might also be the actions of one or more students who are stealing the books because they think it’s funny or cool, or who are doing it on a dare. That type of library theft is like shop-lifting, but without a visible price tag, security camera, or store manager who’ll make a call to law enforcement. This type of library theft can seem so benign and divorced from democratic ideals and personal ethics.

There are other reasons. Sometimes library materials are taken by someone too embarrassed to check out a book on a particular subject. Some children and teens, for example, may be hesitant to let anyone know they are curious about topics such as sex, sexuality, or drugs.

Some young thieves can’t risk getting another fine. They’re most likely worried that an already irritated or extremely strict parent will be given something else about which to become angry, so even if they want to make amends they might be afraid of doing so.

You’re probably already familiar with unethical stealing of library materials required for an entire class, thus making it impossible or extremely difficult or even impossible for other students to complete an assignment, or to do that well.

Regardless of why the books are being stolen, most library thieves simply don’t understand, or perhaps care about, the larger implications of their actions – that they’re selfishly putting pressure on library resources every time a missing book must be replaced.

You’re taking the right approach by continuing to replace them each time they disappear. Luckily they are available in paperback, which makes this easier. This sends a quiet but firm message that the library will not let a thief stand in the way of its mission of providing materials.

September 2005