‘Please do not bite the books’ and other comical library rules

Would you walk into a library with a dirty face? Take a bite out of one of the books? Or LIE to the librarian? 

Librarian Martin Lewis (@rarebookguy) reveals comical library rules from history and shares his five commandments to ensure happy books and librarians. 

No dirty faces and no lies in the library

Libraries have funny rules to an outsider. Historically, some of these rules edge on the weird – especially to modern eyes. For example, this was shared with me (thanks @somnuszzz), and I noted it did the rounds on social media a few times over the years.

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1930 edition of the Nottingham Post

The library oath

It can get crazier – case in point this oath that all users of the Bodleian library have had to take since 1970.  It’s a shorter version of a much longer one put in place in the 19th Century.

No infectious diseases in the library

Don’t think for a second that New Zealand libraries were exempt from interesting regulations.

Makes sense. New Zealand’s 1918 influenza pandemic was not far off – perhaps this was informed by overseas experience? But could you imagine walking into a library (or public place like Te Papa) today and seeing that as a condition of entry? I guess ‘uncleanly in dress’ might make the books, furniture, or librarians dirty…

Martin’s five commandments for happy books (and librarians)

So why do libraries have all these silly rules? Common sense, you say? Well, let me show you some examples of ‘extreme’ use and bizarre best practice for the time in our own library collection.

*Please note this is all historic damage, probably 19th–early 20th century – our users today are much better behaved (mostly).

1. Do not bite our books, even if you’re really hungry

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Martin points to a bite out of a book

Historic chomp out of Geological and topographical atlas of New Zealand: Six maps of the provinces of Auckland and Nelson, 1864, Auckland, by Dr Ferdinand von Hochstetter, Dr August Petermann, T Delattre. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000019)

Speechless. I mean, really – there is a bite mark in this book. No one knows why or when, but in the last 150 years someone found this item tasty.

I bet it wasn’t.

2. Books are not for leaky, hot teapots to sit on

Martin shows book with a stain from a teapot on it

Historic suspected teapot damage on Geological and topographical atlas of New Zealand: six maps of the provinces of Auckland and Nelson, 1864, Auckland, by Dr Ferdinand von Hochstetter, Dr August Petermann, T Delattre. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000019)

Right shape for a teapot (we did some experiments); looks like a mixture of heat, damp, and time. No idea why it didn’t turn into a fairy ring of mould and mushrooms. Again, we don’t know how it happened, the same book as the bite mark – tea and cardboard for one?

3. Books are not coffee cup coasters

Coffee mug stain on bound book

Historic cup ring on The New Zealanders illustrated, 1847, London, by George French Angas, W Hawkins, Louisa Hawkins, Mr. J W Giles, F Giles, Thomas McLean. Te Papa (RB001054)

A minor slop, that obviously sat there long enough to dry with the cup sitting on. This book is the size of a coffee table, but that is no excuse!

4. Don’t write ‘angry’ notes in the margins

Thanks to Elsdon Best’s distinctive handwriting I can tell you he loved to annotate the text of books in our library.

His marginalia (marks made in the margins of a book or other document) deserve a blog of their own… but in brief: he liked to argue and correct the text.

Note the word ‘doubtful’ by my thumb.

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Various marginalia by Elsdon Best in The ancient history of the Maori, his mythology and traditions Vol. 1, 1887, Wellington, By John White. Te Papa (IM16240)

And he didn’t hold back when he disagreed strongly. ‘Doubtful’ is a mild disagreement, where he is stating the image was doubtful – e.g. an inaccurate portrayal of Māori. When he was particularly miffed he would strike the text out and in the margin he would write BOSH! Unfortunately, I could not locate one for this blog in time.

Annotations can be useful and sometimes you can see why someone did it to assist the reader. This is a good example from sometime after 1882:

A note in a book with a paragraph crossed out and the words 'repealed'
 Historic annotations possibly by John A. Wall: The local government guide and ratepayers' manual of New Zealand, 1886, Christchurch, By Wilfred Badger. Gift of Dr C.G.F.Morice. Te Papa (IM23895)


Historic annotations possibly by John A. Wall: The local government guide and ratepayers’ manual of New Zealand, 1886, Christchurch, By Wilfred Badger. Gift of Dr C.G.F.Morice. Te Papa (IM23895)

Once the acts in the guide were repealed, a helpful person crossed out the relevant section in the book. Possibly John A. Whall as his signature in the front of the book is in a similar hand. A colleague said to me that this is still quite common in legal texts.

5. Remove sticky notes (better yet, DON’T use them)

Librarian bane, the evilly convenient sticky note. Obviously, not a modern invention going by the ones in the first seven volumes of this set published 1848–1870.

Historic notes/bookmarks glued into Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners General reports
Historic notes/bookmarks glued into Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners General reports 1840 to 1847, William Clowes & Sons, Charles Knight. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000207)

Historic notes/bookmarks glued into Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners General reports 1840 to 1847, William Clowes & Sons, Charles Knight. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000207)

Each ‘tab’ seems to be a heavy card or leather perhaps? Each is individually stuck in with glue and cloth. Very neatly I should add, but very, very permanent.

Today’s staff do love their sticky notes still – here is one I spotted on a desk recently. The anonymous staff member enthusiastically shared with me her logic when I asked about it: “Sticky notes are an important part of the research process!” Hmm, perhaps. If you’re interested in hearing more about the horrors of sticky notes and what they do see this interesting article by Kirsten Tyree of the Smithsonian Institution Archive.

Modern sticky notes

The horror of sticky notes in The Banks letters; a calendar of the manuscript correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, preserved in the British Museum, the British Museum (Natural History) and other collections in Great Britain, 1958, London, edited by Warren R. Dawson. Te Papa (IM 24565)

Unfortunately, no rules or regulations for the use of our museum library seem to exist from the Colonial Museum days (1865) onwards.

I found hints in the New Zealand Institute by-laws. The NZI was formed within, and evolved out of, the Colonial Museum – one of Te Papa’s ancestors, and is now known as the Royal Society of New Zealand.

It would have been interesting to see if Sir James Hector, the museum’s founder, had any worries about dirty faces, dogs, or smoking in the library.

Our library today is lite on formal rules, too. It’s about creating a safe environment for all, and respecting our books to ensure they last for both our staff and visitors.

It’s not easy sometimes. Recently, Masterton Library was in the news due to their ‘no hats’ rule. Have a read of the Wairapa Times-Age article ‘Hat Policy Angers Library User‘ and mull over the right to wear (pink) hats vs the ability of security cameras to view your face properly in case you are up to no good.

But most importantly, please don’t bite the books or tell lies to the Librarians – it makes us grumpy.

10 Responses

  1. Lynne

    Guilty of reading a book mini post-its in hand!

    Reply
    • Martin Lewis

      I’ll be keeping an eye on that corner of Te Papa from now on!

  2. Joanna Adkins

    The secret life of books… Very interesting Martin. Fascinating hearing about Elsdon Best’s diversions in the margin. Thank goodness Te Papa has such a great team of librarians to ensure our books are well cared for and used appropriately. Thanks. Nga mihi.

    Reply
    • Martin Lewis

      Thanks 🙂 I might try and chase up some of his best ones, one day and do a blog on that, he definitely adds flavour to the collection.

  3. Olwen Mason

    We enjoyed this and had a good laugh. Thanks.

    Reply
  4. Stuart

    ‘fraid I am getting into the marginalia habit (per E Best) but always lightly in pencil … its contributes to the scholarship 🙂

    Reply
    • Martin Lewis

      It’s a funny thing marginalia, short term irritation but potentially a long term insight into another time and place. (secretly agree re contributes to the scholarship, don’t tell our curators or they may get ideas)

  5. Chrissie Locke

    A very interesting blog Mr Lewis – oh dear I am a post-it note fiend!
    Ngā mihi nui
    Chrissie Locke

    Reply

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