Confession: I’m a terrible library patron. I don’t know how to return things on time, and no matter how much I say I’ll do better, I just don’t.
Things only became more embarrassing this year when I resolved to not accrue more than $30 in fines all year and, well, within two months not only doubled that, but ended up needing to pay for replacements of two books.
Why did I need to replace those books, you ask? Because when we had those record-breaking cold days in Chicagoland, cases of seltzer exploded in my car, getting the books covered in ice, which then warmed up and melted, thereby destroying the spines and pages of those books. My library, bless them, tried to salvage the books by putting them in the freezer, but alas, I’m now the owner of two library books I simply wanted to borrow. One of the librarians told me after that that wasn’t even the weirdest water-related incident they’d had. A book was returned damaged one time because the patron’s dog had gotten a claw stuck in their waterbed, caused a gush of water to spring forth, and thereby, damaged the book.
But this isn’t even the weirdest damaged book return story I have. At my first job as a librarian, I had to return and pay for a damaged book that had been eaten by my cat.
The dog might eat your homework, but my cat will eat my library books.
After my most recent return embarrassment—paid for in full immediately—I asked a variety of librarians to share the funniest or weirdest stories of damaged books returned to their library. These were kept anonymous, since privacy is vital in libraries. In answers where a nickname was used, I’ve changed those to “a patron,” to protect the innocent. Also note, some of these stories involve bodily fluids, so read with caution. There is also a nice number of dog-related stories.
I’ll say this much: I feel a bit less red in the face about my own stories. Of course, if you have your own story of a damaged book return, please drop it in the comments and make me, as well as other problem patrons, feel a little less alone.
- MY OWN DOG ate a book about French cheeses I had checked out from the library I am a librarian at. She destroyed it, completely and utterly. I think the fact that it was made of paper, and not cheese, is what fueled her rage. I had to pay the full replacement cost for it too! Bad doggie.
- This one’s a horror story: one patron walked out with a particular book, then walked back in in minutes to open up the book and show us where a previous patron had—and to this day I cannot imagine why—layered three pieces of cooked bacon in the very middle of the fairly large book, now calcified and half-moldy and pressed flat by the weight. Surely the very grossest—I don’t know how it got reshelved and left without notice, I truly don’t.
- Four-year-old, returning a book after a book care lesson: “I tried really hard to take care of my book, but my sister peed on it.”
- My favorite story is not so much weird as inevitable. We got back a book that was crayoned all over, had water damage (some mouth-shaped), and torn. The book was What to Expect: The Toddler Years.
- When we’re asking patrons to check again for a book they think they’ve returned, we often suggest checking under the car seat; however, this patron didn’t drive so he dismissed that idea. A few days later, he rushed in with the book, very excited, because the book had, indeed, been under the car seat—of his pot dealer.
- Someone brought a copy of The Hallow Boy to the reference desk. They opened it up to reveal a smushed packet of McDonalds BBQ sauce inside. The patron looked me straight in the eye and said “I found it like this.”
- Once a chewed up book came back with an apology note written from the dog’s POV.
- We had a case once where a patron put a book in their microwave (they thought they was taking precautions for…I’m not even sure what). Turns out the customer didn’t know the book had a security tag and it blew up their microwave and our book. They brought the damaged book in, happily paid for it while regaling this hilarious and awkward tale. We felt for them!
- We once had a book that was returned to the branch water damaged. When I called the customer a little boy picked up the phone (it had been a children’s book). When I asked to speak to a parent, the boy admitted that his parents only spoke Chinese (I sadly, am not a Chinese speaker). I explained to him that the book had water damage and that his parent would have to be charged for the item. He felt terrible and said he had accidentally dropped it in the snow. I told him how great it was that he was being honest. He then asked me what the book cost and I said “It is $8.” He yells into the phone “My Daddy has $8!” and he hung up on me. I have never forgotten this kid because he still comes into the branch even now after that incident.
- We had a patron return five DVDs and a few books to the library covered in sticky goo and absolutely reeking. This is fairly common for us, so staff took them in the back with bleach wipes and and the Stinky Book Box to see if we could salvage them. It wasn’t until the man was leaving that he mentioned that he had just gotten back from a fishing trip. Upon further (very kind and understanding) questioning, we discovered that he put the items in an empty cooler to keep them safe from the elements on his fishing trip, forgot they were in there, loaded his fish into the cooler, forgot the fish were in there, and left the cooler in the car for a week. Our items were covered in rotting fish guts.
- 10 brand new DVDs came back with the cases & discs destroyed…the patron had just gotten a new puppy and the puppy decided it loved our movies!
- When my mom got Jean M. Auel’s Valley of the Horses, the sequel to Clan of the Cave Bear, from the library, I couldn’t wait for her to finish to take my turn. But by the time she finished it, she had decided I wasn’t old enough to read it, so she declared it off-limits. My interest totally piqued now, I stole it secretly from her room whenever I was in the bathroom behind the safely locked door. While reading in the bath on evening, I dropped the library book into the water. Frantic, I tried to dry the pages with the blow dryer. I returned the book to her nightstand, crossing my fingers that she wouldn’t notice. When the bill for a damaged book came from the library, my mother was first incensed at being wrongly accused of the damage. After thinking further, her brain made up a memory of my brother dropping it in a snowbank when he jumped out of her car to put books in the return slot. I was ashamed, but off the hook. I kept my mouth shut and let her believe her false memory.
- A man handed me a book and as soon as he placed it into my hands he said, “My son threw up on it. He’s a nervous flyer.” It was still damp and clearly ruined. That was my first day in a public library, five years ago. I have since learned to ask for the full story before touching it.
- A kid decided his still wet and slimy leftover popsicle stick was the perfect bookmark. His mother laughed when she told us but I didn’t.
- A mom tried to tell us that the corner of a new book that looked like it had been nibbled on by a puppy wasn’t their puppy who did it. When she turned to ask her son if he had seen the puppy chew on the book, he wholeheartedly confessed. Needless to say his mother was not happy.
- A raccoon got into a book and had to be lured away with Cheetos.
- A kid feel asleep reading the book, wet the bed, and thus, peed on the book.
- A few years ago when I was beginning my career as a branch supervisor in a public library, I had a mother and son come into the library with a book the son had borrowed. The mom had her son show me how he “corrected” the book with permanent marker. The book was a children’s nonfiction about dinosaurs, and he had crossed out entire sections about why the dinosaurs disappeared, and wrote that the flood of Noah was responsible. He also wrote in several places that the earth was 6,000 years old. The boy was not apologetic, and frankly the mother wasn’t too upset either, but at least made her son tell me what he did and paid for the damage. I understand that everyone has their own beliefs, and to each their own, but please don’t “correct” our library books! Afterwards I took pictures of the pages and shared with many of my librarian friends. It’s always a great party story!
- One woman had to pay to replace a considerable number of books because she ate Cheetos while she read and pages were a mess from those Cheeto stains. She obligingly paid for the books but couldn’t stay away from her Cheetos.
- So many dog training books get returned with their corners chewed! (Editor’s note: I used to get a lot of car repair manuals back covered in grease and oil!)
- A woman came into the library with a book in a plastic bag. “I need to pay for a damaged book.” The book in question was a water-damaged kids’ book with red stains. She handed me the book, and as soon as I took it, she casually informed me that her granddaughter had thrown up on it. 😫😫😫.
- There was a cover with a dog w/ red glowing eyes…the book was destroyed by a dog eating two of the corners off.
- A man once called our library and explained that his elderly mother had picked up a dvd from the library and walked home in the rain. The dvd case was wet, so when she got home she decided the best way to dry it off would be to pop it into the microwave for a few seconds. The dvd case melted and the microwave broke, and suffice it to say she was too embarrassed to tell us and had her son call. We marked it as damaged and billed her, and she came in to pay for it weeks later. I wish we could have been able to see the dvd though!
- My baby fell off the bed and kicked a glass of water and the book Raising Sheep with her! I didn’t notice the book was soaked until I had finished comforting her and feeling terrible.
- The reader was using a piece of bacon as a bookmark. One of the staff members found it in the book drop, bacon still inside. What a waste of a perfectly good piece of bacon!
- A woman returned around 10 books rather…wet. Claimed it got rained on, thing was, it hadn’t rained in three weeks…when I took a moment to actually look at the book I found they were all romance novels. Upon further inspection, and curiosity I took a small sniff of the book—it smelt like…lavender? I quickly figured out the woman was reading these books in the bath and either got so riled up reading them that she dropped them—or fell asleep. Not sure which…and I don’t want to know.
- Book was dropped on a sticky trap for mice. Thankfully, it was covered in plastic, so the cover wasn’t damaged, but we had to cut off the old plastic and put on a new layer of plastic.
- I work in an elementary school library, and one day the principal came walking in with a book. He handed it to me and said that a student had chewed it up. There was indeed a big bite taken out of the corner. I’ve had a lot of books returned after being damaged by animals, but this was the first and only time a person has eaten part of a book. At least it was a paperback.
- As a librarian, I often tell this true story to make patrons feel better about their damaged books. When my kids were young, we checked out the hedgehog puppet and then could not find it to return. All 3 swore up and down they had not seen it. Come spring, when I was getting my garden ready, I found it—rolled into a ball and planted in my flower bed.