Written by: Ashra Londa
Introduction: Where Did That Book Go?
Did you know that as of August 24, 2023, the UNT Libraries have a total of 514 books listed as “On Search?” For example, if you type into UNT’s Discover Search the popular spooky novel “Misery” by Stephen King, you will see its availability is set to “On Search.” It is not available for checkout because the book is not on its designated shelf in the library. It is not, as far as we are aware, in the hands of a patron, either. The book… is simply missing.
The reasons behind this are a myriad. It is possible that somebody walked out with it and did not check it out. It is also possible that the library itself misplaced the book, and it is still fully present, just in the wrong spot. It may even be a different reason entirely. Ultimately, a missing book is indefinitely lost, up until it is placed on “withdrawn” and taken out of the collection officially, a process that Collection Development performs once a year.
Books that are lost by patrons who have checked them out, either because the books are overdue or misplaced, are NOT “On Search.” They remain on the patron’s account and are handled on a case-by-case basis. No, these On Search books have mysteriously dispersed from the library, for reasons that staff cannot disclose because not even they know why the books have gone away.
Unfortunately, the loss of materials within a library is not uncommon. Books are often misplaced by careless patrons and uncovered when a shelver or clerk is shelf-reading, or going through the book stacks and checking each item’s call number to ensure the shelves are ordered correctly. Oftentimes, many a missing book is recovered via this method. However, others still slip through the cracks, especially in a library as vast as UNT’s.
UNT is not the only library that loses its books by means that staff cannot identify, either. A number of other strange and inexplicable disappearances have occurred in libraries over the centuries, resulting from a multitude of fright-inducing causes! Below are just a few documented cases of disappearing library books:
The Lost Library of Jaques Philippe d’Orville
Here is one such case of missing library materials. The Dutch scholar Jaques Philippe d’Orville gathered a full library of manuscripts and books by Greek and Latin authors up until his death in 1751 (Galán Vioque 2017). This invaluable collection was believed to be nearly intact when it was purchased by the Bodleian Library. However, it has come to light that many of his materials were sold at auctions prior to the 1804 purchase, meaning that a number of these priceless items are simply lost to time.
Although Galán Vioque has recorded over 100 items missing from the Bodleian collection, thereby proving that over 50% of d’Orville’s library is not contained in the Bodleian, it is impossible to track whether other items yet remain missing from these records. The original library has indeed “suffered dispersal” and may never be fully intact again (p.168). Why were the books auctioned off rather than kept together? Why have numerous auctions occurred wherein the collection was fractured further? We may never know the answer.
Faulty Citations Erase Author Names
What happens when we lose the name of a book’s author? Could it domino spiral into us losing the book, too? A study done at Banasthali University in Rajasthan, India sifted through 5 different theses at their institution. Findings unveiled that, of the 548 journal references contained between these theses, spanning 924 different cited authors, a whopping 149 (16.13%) of these cited authors had names that were inaccurately transcribed (Gupta 2021). Wholly apart from these faulty citations, a total of 13 names were completely incorrect to the point of being unrecognizable. 13 authors, lost. Luckily, the advent of modern technology makes it easy to look up a known work by title and trace it back to the original author, but will such always be the case?
It is important to consider how losing the author disconnects their work from any other writings they may have produced. Furthermore, if losing the author’s name is such a widespread phenomenon, then what stops inaccuracies in the titles themselves from cropping up as well? On top of these worries, Artificial Intelligence such as ChatGPT can make up citations on the spot, almost guaranteed to be riddled with false information. These branching-off issues all originate from the seed of a bad citation. Scary!
Miscataloged Books Cause a Disappearing Act
What could make a book that sits perfectly waiting on its correct shelf for a patron to select it… completely disperse? In a world where more and more catalog searches are performed online, and patrons either do not or can not sift through the library’s stacks on their own, the importance of accurately written catalog records is paramount.
In the Harvard library almost forty years ago, Joyce Flynn (2007) was researching Celtic records in the stacks. She found that many were mistakenly cataloged under the title “Na,” synonymous to “The” in English, causing records to not be searchable without that article present. This error forced records to effectively appear invisible to researchers typing the correct title into a faulty retrieval system. These books may as well already be half-missing!
Conclusion: Books Keep Ghosting
As users of the library, be aware that sometimes books disappear! Take care to record them as accurately as possible when you are looking to cite or otherwise preserve them, and try to limit the problem of disappearing books as much as possible. With an informed mind, perhaps you can stop another poor book from slipping through the cracks.
Happy Halloween, UNT!
References (APA format):
Flynn, J. (2007). Na and the missing library books. Indexer, 25(3), 182. https://doi.org/10.3828/indexer.2007.8
Galán Vioque, G. (2017). The lost library of Jaques Philippe d’Orville: The missing manuscripts and annotated books of the d’Orville collection. Quaerendo, 47(2), 132-170. https://doi.org/10.1163/15700690-12341379
Gupta, V. K. (2021). Missing and defective identity of authors cited in library and information science literature. Library and Philosophy Practice, 1-17.