Theft, vandalism and hatred: 400 years of bad behaviour in the King James Library, part 2

Wednesday 24 October 2012

In every working library, each day sees a struggle played out between order and chaos. It’s a fact of life that however hard librarians work to impose order, opening the doors to users inevitably means that a measure of chaos enters in their wake. Often this is chaos at a fairly low-level: a book being absent-mindedly left on a train; the quiet of a study area being shattered by a phone ringing – that kind of thing. Sometimes though, the chaos that users bring in is a bit more of a problem than this.

What follows is a look at some of the ways that users of the King James Library have interacted with books with rather less uplifting results than their authors might have hoped for.

(This is the second of a two-part series, the first of which was posted on 17 October 2012.)

An inscription reading “Madman Vilant” above a drawing of a straitjacketed figure, inscribed in a copy of James Balfour’s Philosophical Essays (see detail, left). This is not the only annotation to a book to question Vilant’s sanity: for example, a sentence in George Dixon’s Voyage round the World stating that the Sandwich Islands were discovered “by the late Captain Cook” was amended by hand to read “the present mad Captain Vilant”.
Detail of the drawing of “Madman Vilant”.

Another kind of bad behaviour that libraries have long to contend with is the defacing of books. In St Andrews it was an especially serious problem in the late eighteenth century, particularly during the years 1768 to 1788 when the post of University Librarian was held by a fairly notorious individual named William Vilant. He was extremely unpopular and ineffective as Librarian and discipline pretty much went to the dogs under his regime: many books went missing and a craze for scribbling on books told hold. Much of this marginalia comprised malicious remarks and oaths directed at Vilant himself, often using the nick-name ‘Punctum’ which the students had given him. Quite why he inspired so much student hatred isn’t entirely clear. Probably it was largely down to personality, but it may also have been due to his apparent unwillingness to lend books (one inscription reads “Punctum Vilant if ye do not give me out a Book when I want you may assure yourself that I will murder you some dark Night”). A few of the more presentable instances of anti-Vilant marginalia are reproduced here.

Inset above is the inscription “Punctum Vilant Buffoon is a son of a Bitch” from the inside back cover of the first volume of John Mair’s A brief survey of the terraqueous globe. The larger image of the endpaper shows more clearly that someone, possibly Vilant himself, has attempted to erase this scurrilous assertion. The fact that so many of these unedifying inscriptions survive suggests that Vilant was not always so scrupulous in checking the condition that books were returned in, something that had previously been a key duty of the library keeper.

Up to the nineteenth century, with scrap paper in short supply, it was not uncommon for people to scrawl over books. The following example (adorning a copy of Henry Fielding’s Miscellanies) shows how aimless a lot of the writing in library books could be:

A fly-leaf full of marginalia from Henry Fielding’s Miscellanies, transcribed below.

1. The student author, James Duncan, practicising his signature (also variously rendered as “James Lones” and “James Mankyster B”)

2. Following some pious thoughts (“Dear God as creator of world […]”) there are a few lines regarding Vilant, on this occasion surprisingly respectful (although perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek): “Many People think I speak disrespectfully of Mr Vilant but I am none of these, for if you Insure to bring a line for a Book not Veted, he will Certainly give you it if it be in the Library.” [The word “Veted” may refer to vetoed books, i.e. titles which the University authorities deemed unsuitable for undergraduate eyes. This included literature such as novels that might distract students from their studies, but also certain titles deemed ‘improper’ – such as The Memoirs of Sally Salisbury (an account of the life of a famous eighteenth-century prostitute) which it was decided should be removed from stock, the catalogue entry being amended to read “Infamous book destroyed”.]

3. The text continues “N.B. remember always to get your line signed, a Circumstance frequently not attended to.” [This alludes to another practice which had been introduced to control student access to books: students were required to produce a slip of paper signed by a lecturer testifying that they were fit to borrow the book listed.]

4. The text here shifts to humour: “N.B. Cukus’ history of the Carthaginians wrote originally in French by Alexander the Great, translated into Latin by Dr Johnson & from that into English by Cicero with notes by Aristotle is reserved for Mr Gressty’s[?] own particular use.” [“Cukus” here might possibly refer to John Cook, Professor of Humanity and Moral Philosophy. As there wasn’t anything like a university magazine at the time, writing in books became one of the main means of self-expression for students, much of this taking the form of humorous or ribald remarks about their studies and environment. Given that most of the students at the time were adolescents however, the humour isn’t always very well developed.]

5. [Upside down] The comment “I fancy you are not very right” suggests the author is conducting a written conversation with another student. The other half of the conversation is quite possibly recorded on a different library book!

Note: a fascinating examination of student marginalia from this period can be found in the PhD thesis “St Andrews University Library in the eighteenth century: Scottish education and print-culture” by Matthew Simpson (1999).

The Arts and Divinity Reading Room, the Library, University of St Andrews, by James Fairweather, about 1898 (from the Photographic Collection). This building is now home to the School of Psychology & Neuroscience in St Mary’s Quad.
Portrait of Principal George Hill (University of St Andrews Museum Collections HC189).

Vilant’s successor as Librarian had some success in curbing this kind of behaviour by requiring students to pay a deposit to ensure books were returned on time and in good condition. Despite this, the tendency over this period was for the University authorities to seek to reduce student access to books, quite likely with the aim of thereby preventing theft and damage. Most strikingly, library opening hours were reduced bit by bit over the centuries, from around 24 hours per week in 1642 to an all-time low of around 6 per week in the 1820s. (Compare this with the 118 hours of regular term-time opening of the Main Library today.)

Like the measures that preceded it, this reduction in access was not uncircumventable. Professors had been in the habit of borrowing keys in order to enter the library out of hours, and some more indulgent librarians were persuaded to extend the privilege to students. In 1817 Principal George Hill, conducting an investigation into why so many books had gone missing, noted that “The Librarian […] did not exercise a very strict vigilance over those who had [the keys]; and there is reason to think that many persons availed themselves of this indulgence to pocket small books.” He went on to remark, “The evil of this abuse was strongly felt by the University, and it is now effectually prevented” – this refers to a security measure implemented as a result of the investigation: the locking of the presses the books were kept in.

A portrait of Professor Thomas Chalmers, by Hill & Adamson, c. 1843 (St Andrews Alb 24-6).

In the early nineteenth century, students not only had to cope with severely reduced opportunities for borrowing (or indeed stealing) books; on the few occasions when the Library did open each week they were not permitted to use it to study in. A commission conducting a review of the University in 1827 clearly thought this state of affairs unsatisfactory, as evidenced by this remarkable (by today’s standards) exchange with Thomas Chalmers, who was at this time Professor of Moral Philosophy:

Commissioner: Do you consider that it is a proper arrangement in a University that the Public Library should only be open for two or three hours on two or three days a week so as to prevent the possibility of any system of reading going on within the Library?

Chalmers: I think it were well that the number of hours was increased.

Commissioner: The question particularly alluded to the purpose of affording Students an opportunity of reading in the Library.

Chalmers: I do not know that I would altogether approve of that arrangement.

                                                    -from Commission for Visiting the Universities and Colleges of Scotland, vol. III: University of St Andrews

Very likely the difficulty of accessing books made students covet them all the more, for when borrowing regulations were relaxed round about the start of the twentieth century the numbers of thefts diminished substantially. Challenging behaviour of the kind we’ve been looking at didn’t disappear from the Library altogether however. Today, no matter how sophisticated our book security systems have become they probably won’t deter all attempts at theft, and despite this being the electronic age students continue to feel the need to write on printed books – multi-coloured highlighting of text being a particular curse just now. Perhaps though as we move to a point where more and more books are available electronically both problems will diminish markedly.

All the same, while abuse of books can be very trying for most of us, the whole point of libraries is that people use them – otherwise they become little more than book museums. If coping with the chaos that readers bring in with them is the price the Library has to pay for continuing to be the beating heart of the University’s intellectual endeavour, then let chaos reign (but not too much – please).

Colin Bovaird

Academic Liaison Officer and King James Library observer

Related topics

3 thoughts on "Theft, vandalism and hatred: 400 years of bad behaviour in the King James Library, part 2"

  • Theft, vandalism and hatred: 400 years of bad behaviour in the King James Library, part 1 « Echoes from the Vault
    Wednesday 24 October 2012, 9.07am

    [...] End of part 1: come back next week, 24 October 2012, for the conclusion to “Theft, vandalism and hatred: 400 years of bad behaviour in the King James Libra...“ [...]

  • Rachel Hart
    Rachel Hart
    Wednesday 24 October 2012, 9.25am

    Really fascinating reflections. Thanks so much for extending our library story beyond the exhibition's timeline, Colin.

  • Theft, vandalism and hatred: 400 years of bad behaviour in the King James Library, part 2 | Special Collections Librarianship |
    Sunday 28 October 2012, 2.08pm

    [...] In every working library, each day sees a struggle played out between order and chaos. It’s a fact of life that however hard librarians work to impose order, opening the doors to users inevitably means that a measure of chaos enters in their wake.  [...]


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