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FOCUS: Defacement or marginalia? (Nov. 2019)

December 9th, 2019 · No Comments

The question of writing in library books at U of T

Defacement of library books inconveniences readers. Nicole Stoffman/Gleaner News

By Nicole Stoffman

Judging by the state of many books one finds at the University of Toronto Libraries, writing in library books is a U of T tradition. In long-held parts of the collection, especially in books used for course readings and essay research, one finds almost every sentence underlined or highlighted.

Do University of Toronto Library (UTL) staff and librarians notice the state of these books? One front line staff member, who did not wish to be named, told us it is a big problem without a clear solution. University College librarian Margaret Fulford agrees, and says the cost of replacing defaced books would be huge. 

“The whole purpose of libraries is that they’re there for everyone and you are highlighting or underlining only what interests you,” says Lisa J. Sherlock, chief librarian of the E.J. Pratt Library at Victoria College. “It’s a selfish use of a library book, which is a shared resource.”  

Writing in books is not just an inconvenience for fellow users, it challenges accessibility. Accessibility librarian Katya Pereyaslavska gets her staff to erase markings in books for digitization for readers with a learning disability or visual impairment. Back in November she participated in a social media campaign to draw attention to the extra work writing in books creates for her team. “People didn’t realize the tediousness of erasing that we must do to make this material accessible,” she noted.

Could staff at least erase underlining in pencil? “Once I had a student at the front desk go through a book and erase, but it consumes too much staff time,” says Fulford. 

What about catching book vandals when they return the book? 

“Even if they return the book, we never pin a fine on them, because there’s no way to track who did it,” explains David Hagelaar, associate chief librarian at the John M. Kelly Library, at St. Michael’s College. “What if it was a user who never checked the book out who is responsible?”

If the task of cleaning U of T’s existing collection is vast, managing the issue of book defacement on a yearly basis is possible. In the last year, only six or seven books had to be replaced at the John W. Graham Library, and only one book replacement fee was issued, after a coffee spill. Similarly, at the E.J. Pratt Library only three books were replaced last year. Fortunately, not all types of books are equally likely to be victimized. John Papadopoulos, director of the John W. Graham Library at Trinity College, has only had complaints about defacement when one particular chapter of a book has been studied many times over. Ms. Fulford has never seen writing in her literature, bestseller, or graphic novel collection. 

Surprisingly, graduate students are the biggest culprits. 

“They think, ‘no one else is doing this kind of work, so no one else will notice,’” surmises Mr. Papadopoulos. 

Fulford says she was shocked to learn that a graduate student would do such a thing, and the single book vandal she was able to catch was a graduate student who borrowed a new acquisition. 

“I phoned her and asked, ‘Is this something you did?’ and she said, ‘I write in all my books, and I guess I did it again.’ I bought a new one and charged her a $50 book damage fee. She felt guilty, and probably won’t do it again.”

On the other hand, there is a long history of considering the commentary written in the margins of books “marginalia.” It is the sign of an active reader. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote marginalia so copious it was published in its own volume and is considered a completely different aspect of his life’s work. 

How to distinguish between marginalia and defacement? For Papadopoulos, the distinction is one of time. 

“If a book is recently underlined, it’s defacement. If it’s been underlined 100 years ago, it’s marginalia. It’s interesting to see historically how the reader engaged with the book.”    

For Hagelaar, the marginalia of famous people is very valuable, but he says he’s willing to consider a student’s commentary marginalia as well. For him, marginalia does not interrupt the flow of text, and is therefore not grounds for replacement, whereas underlining and highlighting does.

“I loved it in high school, when you got a Shakespeare book, and people had written notes for you,” says U of T undergraduate, Jodi Pereyaslavska. She adds that students are often happy to come across marginalia and consider it a form of “peer mentoring.”

Writing in books at U of T may not be a plague, yet UTL could be more proactive in discouraging it. After all, online forums may not have diminished the temptation to underline or write in the white space of actual books. At the E.J Pratt Library, for example, while the practice has not increased over the last 10 years, it has remained a fairly consistent issue. 

The problem is not unique to UTL, but their collection, used for study and research, is more vulnerable to defacement than the public library system, where books are being taken out for leisure reading.

UTL’s social media campaigns and “Library Conduct Regulations” pamphlets are praiseworthy initiatives, but are less visible than posters in washrooms and common areas could be. At the smaller college libraries, front desk staff could be empowered to conduct random spot checks. Should they note that a book is clean upon being signed out, they could insert a reminder slip, advising the borrower that it has been noted the book is clean, and that defacement incurs a fine. Notices pasted to inside covers of new acquisitions could be another low-tech, proactive step towards ensuring an accessible collection for all scholars, now and in the future. 


Next time you are passing through the St. George Campus, step back in time and enjoy some famous marginalia. Here are two notable examples from college libraries: 

John W. Graham Library at Trinity College:

– A copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy from 1497. This rare book, a gift of Guy and Sandra UpJohn, features marginalia “noting that the book has been reviewed by the Expurgation Commission of the Spanish Inquisition at Toledo Spain, 1614.” 

Danthe Alighieri fiorentino 1497 Upjohn-Waldie 1497 D36 fol.

E.J. Pratt Library at Victoria College:

– Annotated Frye, a collection of over 2000 books by the famous literary scholar, academic, and former Chancellor of Victoria University. Some of the richest marginalia is to be found in The Complete Writings of William Blake. Frye’s writing is so tiny and cramped that the library will offer you a magnifying glass. 

NOTE: Advance notice of 24 hours is required for special collection use. Retrievals take place at 10 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm daily. The collections are available for use from 9:30 am until 4:30 pm Monday to Friday.

Happy Marginal Reading!

Tags: Annex · Life