Book destruction, thefts at University of Kansas library


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Books dating back to 1819 recently were vandalized at Watson Library on the University of Kansas campus, causing $5,000 worth of damage. One folio contained images of the archeology of Greece’s ancient Delphi (the Apollo Temple is pictured above); another was about Julius Caesar.

Two sets of covers with all the contents cut or ripped out were found May 28, one in a women’s bathroom and another on a hallway bench in the university library in Lawrence, Kan. Since then, the library has found four additional books that are missing pages. Many of the library’s rare books are housed in a separate facility, but the library’s communications director, Rebecca Smith, noted that ‘making these collections accessible’ is important to the library. ‘It’s really unfortunate and incredibly rare that something like this would happen.’


Library staff said there didn’t seem to be a pattern to the pages that were stolen; Kansas police are in touch with art dealers and booksellers in the area. One bookseller was skeptical that the plates held much value, but library staff said they could garner a ‘hefty price.’

That’s assuming it was a thief or thieves who vandalized the books.

One famous case of literary vandalism wasn’t theft at all but an ongoing prank. Young playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell were so annoyed by the lousy books they found at their local library -- ‘Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves for rubbish and hardly any space for good books,’ Orton later said -- that they took out books and defaced them, changing text and images. One book, ‘The Great Tudors,’ ended up with a monkey instead of a king on its cover. Orton would sometimes go to the library to watch unsuspecting patrons encounter his handiwork.

Orton and Halliwell also removed illustrated plates from books -- more than 1,600 were decorating the walls of their flat when police arrested them in 1962. The books left behind by Halliwell and Orton are now valuable enough to make up their own collection, housed in London’s Islington Local History Centre.

-- Carolyn Kellogg