Strategies for leaving a note for myself in a library book for 20 years
November 30, 2019 7:06 PM   Subscribe

So I came across an interesting suggestion I want to try: writing myself a letter, then leaving it in a library book for 20 years to come back and get. But I need some strategies. I know some libraries semi-regularly pull unread books. And I don't want that. But if I pick a a higher traffic book it might get read and removed. So what's a book that a librarian won't cull even if no one reads it? Also should I go with a big library (NYPL Main one) or a small one in a random locale (small town in Finland)?
posted by rileyray3000 to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would leave it in three fourths of the way through Homicide by David Simon, in a university library. First-hand account, somewhat important figure (his shows will still be well regarded in 2039), it’s long so no one will get that far if it’s checked out, and a university library isn’t likely to toss a book that old as they’ve so many older books than that. Also, I’d plant several copies of the letter to increase the odds you can retrieve it.
posted by michaelh at 7:21 PM on November 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Visit a large research library and leave it in a bound library science periodical such as Library Journal. No one will look at it as long as the library maintains a digital subscription, but it won't be weeded since it's a core professional journal.

(There's still the danger it will be discovered during shifting or transfer to off-site storage. So be prepared for a nosy library worker to read your letter.)
posted by toastedcheese at 7:43 PM on November 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Librarian here. Something in the local historical books section of a smaller (but not teeny) would be your best bet. I bet my library will have any of their local books about the town in two decades, and there's a pretty small chance they will all 1) be digitized by then (though maybe) and 2) be discarded even if they are digitized

It's possible there will be a sea change in this sort of thing, but unlikely. I'd think that "digitizing everything" situations would be more likely in an academic library. However! The other thing you need to think about is that the letter not be disturbed. There is a higher likelihood that small library local history books might be either disturbed by readers (because they're popular) or by digitizers (because they are likely candidates).

If it were me, then, I might consider the deep bowels of a HUGE academic library where they keep stuff for posterity and where stuff is really unlikely to be touched. So like a bound periodical in the Harvard/Widener stacks. Worst case it maybe makes it into super-deep storage (so it might be challenging but not impossible to retrieve) but a lot less likely that it would be outright gone. On preview: YES.

So realistically you're going to want to try this maybe ten different ways under the LOCKSS principle.
posted by jessamyn at 7:44 PM on November 30, 2019 [10 favorites]

A reference series you haven't heard of, volume 10 or so.

At my library I'd suggest the Cambridge Ancient History, except I'm reading the first couple volumes. The later volumes should be safe though.
posted by zompist at 7:50 PM on November 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Put it in a university law library book, no one reads those things anymore but they’ll never get rid of them!
posted by katypickle at 8:39 PM on November 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wouldn’t put it in a bound periodical because those are getting weeded by places moving to digital subscriptions and with space pressures. Jessamyn’s suggestion to choose a large, well-funded academic library make sense. You might also think about putting it in a book that’s a government document. It’s very hard for federal depositories to get rid of that stuff even if it’s available digitally. But also... please assume that you might lose this letter.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:23 PM on November 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

An older English translation of the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, kept at Widener or Sterling. Everyone will read the more recent translation, but the older one is unlikely just to be tossed because of its literary influence. There are usually three volumes in English--stick it somewhere after Louis XIV dies.
posted by praemunire at 10:04 PM on November 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Counterpoint on the university law library book thing: students may not use them often, but community members with pro se cases absolutely do. It's not as safe a bet as it might seem.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:00 AM on December 1, 2019

On your private note to yourself, leave a message to any other finder to please leave it or replace it back in the book. For best results don't leave it in a sealed envelope. That will tempt people to open it, and once there are two pieces of paper reduces the chances of it being replaced in the book.

For letter format I would suggest a larger piece of acid free archival paper, folded, with your message to yourself on the inside. On the outside of the paper I would put an explanation of what the project is, with the request not to remove, and then I would add some spaces for people who find it to fill in their initials and the date, say about five lines for this, and fill in the first two with fake dates and initials in the not too distant past. This will set up the expectation for any finder that other people have left it there and increase the chance that they will also, as people tend to do what everyone else is doing. New dates and initials will be unlikely and amusing. Lack of new dates will not prove anything as many people would glance at the letter dubiously and tuck it back in un-initialled.

Of course you may be trying to set it up so that the letter is untouched until you find it. In that case you may need to do the cat's whisker or the tiny-pinch-of-talcum-powder trick so as to provide some evidence that it was not.

Definitely try to stick your letter into a book in the reference section rather than in with books that can be checked out. And don't forget to put your contact information on the letter, on the tiny outside chance that someone will find the book in a second hand book store in 2046 and contact you to return it.

If you do this you are probably dooming the library in question to demolition... Come the revolution they will be burning down the Harvard and Widener library stacks at the same time as they torch the rest of that bastion of privilege; the revolution will only take place because you set the fates in motion by placing the letter.
posted by Jane the Brown at 2:38 AM on December 1, 2019 [28 favorites]

An academic library will hold the bound theses of MA and PhD graduates, forever. Nobody reads them.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:24 AM on December 1, 2019 [14 favorites]

Three letters, three libraries, three cities. Check them periodically.
posted by TrishaU at 7:02 AM on December 1, 2019

Came in to say same thing as DarlingBri - academic research library with bound PhD theses. I can only speak for the hard sciences, but everything a future reader would be looking for in the thesis would be available on-line and for the meat of the thesis, republished in a journal. A post-doc I worked with had left a $20 bill in her thesis and whenever she was back on that campus, would check to see if it was still there (it always was).
posted by kovacs at 7:34 AM on December 1, 2019 [10 favorites]

Addendum to the theses/dissertations suggestion—you never know when someone with a thirst for digitization will strike (or, er, find funding) so if you go that route, pick a thesis or diss with multiple copies and pick the best condition one of the bunch. Nth everyone saying you should plant a few.

(Caveat to the addendum: I worked for a large reasonably well-funded academic library and the first big project we did involved digitizing all theses/disses, pulling the second or third copies and recycling, and later shipping the first copies to remote storage. But this was very much someone’s pet project, so YLMV.)
posted by pepper bird at 8:16 AM on December 1, 2019

An academic library will hold the bound theses of MA and PhD graduates, forever. Nobody reads them.

These often get digitized and trashed (because the easiest way to get a good scan is to rip it apart).

Reference books tend to get replaced with new editions or digital copies too.

Many books don’t circulate and aren’t weeded, but I think folks are underestimating space pressures and digitization, which is often carried out to create more space.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:23 AM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Many theses repositories are either being digitized, or are submitted digitally in the first place.

Perhaps putting the letter under a (tight fitting) dust jacket - or writing it on really thin paper that you can roll up and slip into the spine - might make it harder to accidentally find?
posted by porpoise at 3:14 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: No to theses/dissertations. I've worked at 2 large research universities since 2006 and both require publication in e-only (a print copy is never produced)-- we digitized and tossed all the bound ones in the early 2000s.

I'd suggest a special collection or endowed collection over anything else because these never get weeded (for the former, you're buying these cause they are special or unique; for the latter, you have someone who gave $ and materials to the school in exchange for perpetual caretaking of the books). You're looking for something that very few people will touch, but that cannot be tossed out due to rules when acquired-- Stanford recently catalogued thousands of Edwardian novels and while these will be digitized, the print copies will be retained for research and study. The article specifically mentions including the epherema the owners left inside these books as a bonus for study-- so disguise your notes as ephemera in a collection like this and you might be fine! At smaller universities, you're more likely to find less-exciting endowed collections that will be out on the shelves/accessible, rather than behind lock and key like special collections.

If you are in Los Angeles I have some specific ideas for where you could put these, based on my experiences of finding things accidentally hidden for 20, 30, or 40 years in the libraries where I have worked. I suspect if you befriended a librarian in the town you wanted to do this in, they would have some ideas.
posted by holyrood at 3:36 PM on December 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

Holyrood, I'm completely disappointed to learn that current PhD students don't have to painstakingly produce paper copies of their thesis on archival quality paper and have an admin in the graduate studies office pull out a ruler and measure the margins to make sure they can bind them before accepting it.
posted by kovacs at 7:08 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I actually AM in Los Angeles from time to time so PM me any thoughts you might have on this.
posted by rileyray3000 at 10:05 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, please tread carefully if you are thinking of storing anything inside of a rare, valuable, or special item. These kinds of materials are stolen enough that the rooms where you can use them tend to be monitored, by people and/or cameras, and suspicious behavior will look ... suspicious. And if you use the wrong kind of paper, you can damage the item.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:36 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Put it in your own personal library.
posted by Wild_Eep at 9:06 AM on December 2, 2019

Holyrood, I'm completely disappointed to learn that current PhD students don't have to painstakingly produce paper copies of their thesis

I mean, they do. Not every university is on a rampage to digitize. It's nice that some people are able to submit digitally now, but plenty of places still require and archive multiple bound copies. And they are 100% still there; I had to pull a 12 year old MA thesis at UCC for a friend recently, and there it was, in the dusty stacks. You can still pull my grandfather's PhD at NYU if you'd like.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:18 PM on December 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Please use archival quality paper and ink and don’t place it in a special collection. If a bookmark made of acidic paper is in proximity to a books pages for the time frame you’re thinking of it will damage the book’s paper.
posted by azalea_chant at 3:19 PM on December 2, 2019

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