Book-Markers, Book-Scribblers, Book-Vandals: 1887, 1901, 1907


The Peculiar Habit That Many Have of Marking Passages.

Some People Think, the Street Car Orator Says, That Their Criticisms May Be Valuable to Other Patrons of the Public Library.

“Peculiar, isn’t it,” the Street Car Orator was saying, “how people will mark and scribble in books that don’t belong to them? Used to be librarian back East myself. Know what’m talking about. People wouldn’t deface their own books that way. What induces a person to mark passages in a book? Does he think that the next person who gets that book will be similarly affected or is it just conceit or ignorance or destructiveness?”

“Just mean; that’s what ails those fellows,” a straphanger suggested.

“And there’s the High school girl,” the Orator continued. “Her sweetheart belongs to some fraternity. She has to give some outward demonstration of her feelings, so she spends a good deal of her time while reading in making facsimiles of ‘his’ fraternity pin on the pages of the library book she is reading. She underlines pretty passages in books. Especially poetry.”


“There’re other ways of defacing books,” said the man who was standing so that the front door couldn’t’ be closed. “Ever get a book in which some idiot had filled in the center of every letter O and C and Q? Isn’t that a fool trick?” “I have,” the Orator replied, “and I’ve found many books in which some conceited reader has written criticisms and opinions on the margins. Now, who cares a rap for those criticisms? Once—when I was librarian back East—I discovered that a widely known English lawyer was our most prolific critic. Of course I told the man that he couldn’t have any more books from the library without special permission from the board of education. Actually he wept. He said the habit of making those criticisms had become so strong that he couldn’t stop. He didn’t get his permit from the board of education and I never saw him in the library again.” Kansas City [MO] Star 9 January 1907: p. 3


In spite of the watchfulness of the employes of the Library of Congress, book scribblers are said to have become a common nuisance in Uncle Sam’s large and artistic reading rooms up on Capitol Hill. It is also said that they have “made their marks” on volumes in the public library. A librarian of experience, in discussing this subject, said the men or women who indulge in book scribbing are usually egotists who think the book is valueless after they have read it. Sometimes they strike out the passages they do not like, while those that appeal to them are heavily underscored or placed in brackets.

It is said considerable time is expended by attaches of libraries in erasing the work of the scribblers, including criticisms or suggestions written on the margins of the pages.

In many cases the officers of the libraries learn who defaces the books, but in almost every instance the perpetrator denies the deed. He is evidently ashamed of the thoughts he was so proud of when he wrote them in the margin of the book. The Cook County Herald [Grand Marais, MN] 5 October 1907: p. 2

A further note says that “illustrations are the particular prey of the library sharks, especially those that appear in the magazines that run to colored pictures.”

Canadian libraries suffered from the same affliction:


“The want of reverence for books is one of the marked features of city life in Toronto,” was the emphatic statement of Chief Librarian Bain, the other day, when asked by The Star about the care with which the citizens of Toronto handle the books of The Toronto Public Library, to a man of Librarian Bain’s temperament, a greater part of whose life has been devoted to books, and who regards them generally with a great deal of reverence and respect, the marking of books is a heinous offence, which, in his eyes, appears till the more grievous because it is generally books of value and merit that are subjected to the crime of marking. Books on theology, books expressing rather strong political opinions, works of history, books on travel, and books on questions of the day, seem to be the especial prey of the book-marker.

In most cases, it is the half -educated man who is a crank on a subject who is the principal offender. Ultra Protestantism, Catholicism, or Orangeism, whenever strongly displayed in a book is sure to arouse a strongly diverse view, and in order that readers following may not fall into the serious pitfalls laid by the writer of the book, he feels in duty bound to write opposite a strong statement: “Bosh,” or “rot.” Probably the marker meets an exceptionally pleasing statement that meets his view, and again benevolently thinking of benefiting the readers following, he must underline it.

This evil of marking library books has become more rampant of late, and it is very hard to catch offenders. A short time ago, however, a new current review was taken out, and when returned was found marked in a great many places. The offender was apprised of his crime, which he admitted and said it was due to thoughtlessness. He luckily got off by providing the library with another copy.

It is impossible to scrutinize the books very closely as they come in, which makes it till the more difficult to trace the offender after it has been out a few times. In a great many cases the library officials are almost sure who the offenders are, but are unable to secure criminating evidence. The growth of the evil has aroused the librarians, and offenders, if caught, will be taken to the police court. Bookseller & Stationer, Vol. 17 1901

Then there was the librarian’s problem of finding the identity of the book-vandal as described by Mr Dewey (he of the decimal system):

Charging for damages or for defacing books is a very ticklish part of library business. It is surprising in how many cases a book was, when a borrower took it out, already in the dilapidated condition in which he returns it ; and how uniformly difficult it is to ascertain who the literary critic is who has annotated the margins of the works of fiction with his written estimates and opinions, and who prefers to remain anonymous and force the librarian to seize his obliterative eraser and laboriously remove “ good book,” “no good,” “i do not Believe that no such Man as gerald everlived,” “ howard was a villian,” etc., etc., from the margins of the books upon which these sentiments have been inscribed. The most aggravated cases are done in blue pencil, with an occasional lurid inscription in red ink, but the personality of the authors of these productions is shrouded in a deeper mystery than that of Junius. Library Notes: Improved Methods and Labor-savers for Librarians, Volumes 2-3,  edited by Melvil Dewey, 1887

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Plus ça change… Even today, one can find “cranks”–Mrs Daffodil understands that they are called “trolls,” which is puzzling since surely they cannot all be Scandinavian?–performing the electronic equivalent of vigorously underlining passages in books. There are also those who write profaner versions of “Bosh” in the margins of sites on religion, politics, and those set up for the purpose of judging the pulchritude of persons who post their photographs.

Of course, when the scribbling and underlining and “Rot” is old enough or is done by a famous person, it is called “marginalia” and is highly desirable. The very thought still makes Mrs Daffodil want to reach for an india-rubber.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.



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