British Library “loses” 9,000 books, really?

British library
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Today the Guardian reported about the British Library misplacing/losing 9,000 books:

More than 9,000 books are missing from the British Library, including Renaissance treatises on theology and alchemy, a medieval text on astronomy, first editions of 19th- and 20th-century novels, and a luxury edition of Mein Kampf produced in 1939 to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday.

The library believes almost all have not been stolen but rather mislaid among its 650km of shelves and 150m items – although some have not been seen in well over half a century.

Mislaying 9,000 items accounts for approximately .006% of the collection. Maybe it’s because I work in a small library without an ILS, but I don’t see how this is news. Maybe the figures from the inventory, but human error happens. Library’s, despite our best efforts, always are at the mercy of the carbon filter. Of course with a collection like the British Library’s, misplaced items are easily valuable tomes of western culture and not some V.C. Andrews or Robert Ludlum novel that could be replaced for a couple of bucks. No, it’d likely be a first edition Dickens novel or The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Guardian also has an interesting piece by novelist Michèle Roberts where she describes libraries as a “maze of magic“. (Roberts trained as a librarian for a few years.) She writes:

I did not survive long as a librarian. After a seven-month stint as the British Council’s librarian in Bangkok (I blotted my copybook by sending the king and queen stern reminders that their library books were overdue), I returned to the UK and supported myself through part-time teaching and journalism. From time to time, I meet some of the librarians with whom I trained: they have had to become expert managers and ideologues in a free market, fighting the narrowing availability of public libraries and their reduction of stock, coaxing disaffected youngsters into Idea Stores, battling the contempt for intellectual life initiated in the Thatcher years. Librarians are necessarily heroes and warriors – albeit in disguise.

Of course that last line just gave me some warm fuzzies, but she basically outlines how much work it is to keep things organize and retrievable. It takes an army of people to make it possible for somebody to come and find that book they want when they look for it. It works most of the time, but of course people remember the failures more often than not. Overall, I think this has been an interesting glimpse into a major institution, something the public should see (warts and all).

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