Post-Its: Bad For Books?

by John Holbo on January 11, 2006

A friend just told me a story: he left a post-it in a book, returned it to a university library, was soon summoned into the presence of an enraged librarian, informed that post-it’s destroy books and the one he had returned had been sent to the lab for testing. If deemed contaminated with corrosive post-it glue, he would be charged for replacement.

I am very sorry to hear that post-its in books are like facehuggers on all the minor characters in the Alien films; because I use post-its like mad. I have a copy of Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation with post-its on the post-its. (So I guess I should figure out whether post-it glue is bad for post-it paper, if I’m planning on saving those post-its for years.) I always assumed I was being kind to books, not writing on/dogearing the pages. I will change my habits if I must but I’ll miss the useful darlings.

Googling I’m getting some confirmation of the ‘post-its are bad’ thesis. But why haven’t I heard this before? Is everyone else in the know? Did the Volokhs already take sides two days ago and I missed the memo? I often walk around carrying library books that flutter like colorful tropical birds. I never noticed anyone glaring at me.

In other news, have you ever noticed how computer and software and general IT advertising often features a picture of a multiethnic, mixed gender group of co-workers, smiling faces all lit by the light of the monitor of the obviously excellently working computer they are gathered around. When in fact the only time five people are ever staring at the same lit computer screen is when one of them is saying something like ‘really? even the off button doesn’t work?’

{ 2 trackbacks }

Emerald City Weblog » Book Vandalism: Science Fiction and Fantasy News
01.11.06 at 12:22 pm
Pretty Cunning
01.12.06 at 5:45 am



Alexei McDonald 01.11.06 at 2:09 am

I’m afraid it’s true. I’ve seen items of stock damaged by post-it notes from time to time, some quite badly.

Use plain slips of paper, please, or make sure that you remove all the post-it notes when you return the item, and blame some other user for any damage.


Guest 01.11.06 at 2:11 am

Why the crazy overreaction? Was it a rare book or something? It’s not in the same league of course, but the first thing I thought of was the Steve Kurtz “bioterrorism” affair of last year. How bizarre.


abb1 01.11.06 at 2:12 am

Nietzsche wouldn’t mind it.


Carl Manaster 01.11.06 at 2:21 am

MIT says

Although these notes seem harmless, the glue they use is not acid-free, and can harm the books. Also, pages can be torn easily when the notes are removed. If you need to bookmark certain pages, we ask that you use paper or thin cardboard bookmarks.

which I find really suspicious. If the bare “not acid-free” statement stood alone, I’d probably take it as coming from experts who know more about it than I do. But then they pair it with “easily” tearing pages when the notes are removed – and that’s just patent malarkey. Which makes me think it’s all hyperparanoid crap. I’ve never seen post-its cause any kind of harm.


susan 01.11.06 at 2:28 am

I’m a picture framer so I know a little about acid-free papers and glues. The best way I can explain is to offer an example: Have you ever seen the marks and damage done by old cellophane tape (I mean scotch-tape-like tape, but not the brand name alone)? Or masking tape?


John Holbo 01.11.06 at 2:53 am

But isn’t scotch-tape glue a lot stronger than post-it glue? Or is that an irrelevant consideration?

If this is such a problem, why hasn’t someone come up with some sort of paper-friendly post-it glue? Is that like cold fusion or something – just beyond the technology of our species?


daylight 01.11.06 at 4:13 am

I don’t care how many book’s you destroy, but please don’t degrade the language by forming plural’s incorrectly. Write post-its. People like me have their morning’s completely ruined when intelligent person’s like you write thoughtlessly. Thank’s. [Post updated. – the Editor’s!]


Jasper Milvain 01.11.06 at 5:51 am

Cambridge University Library has a chamber of horrors that puts the case more reasonably:

We frequently point out to readers that they should not stick adhesive notes into our books. The readers are usually surprised because they believe them to be harmless. Any brand of mildly-adhesive repositional-note presents us with problems. Firstly, the notes can get trapped when pages are turned and the text gets ripped along the shear line at the edge of the notelet. Secondly, the mild adhesive is strong enough to remove the nap from fine antique papers and lift the print off the page. Thirdly, the notes were not designed by Conservation staff thinking about books that will be kept for centuries. And our conservators are concerned that the residual glue and chemicals, deposited on the pages of books, will eventually discolour or chemically change the paper.

They also give an example. The full tour is horrifying, if you’ve yet to take it.


Andrew Brown 01.11.06 at 5:56 am

What about the transparent plastic type of post-it that I use very heavily? Does anyone know if they have the same, damaging glue? And, if they do, for God’s sake don’t tell the London Library.


Andrew Brown 01.11.06 at 5:58 am

Jasper Milvain seems to have answered my quesiton while I was looking for the right link. I shall try to think of some other method in future.


freddie 01.11.06 at 6:38 am

Solution easy: simply bend pages you want to get back to.


Laura 01.11.06 at 7:34 am

On the second point, my new laptop came with a book extolling the joys of video conferencing or something. In the picture it’s desperately obvious that all four diverse smiling conferencees are in fact sitting in the same tastefully minimalist office. Nerds.

I found a mummified dead mouse inside an 1809 Quarterly Review (Mitchell Library)


Steve 01.11.06 at 7:56 am

Strange combination of topics, but

“In other news, have you ever noticed how computer and software and general IT advertising often features a picture of a multiethnic, mixed gender group of co-workers, smiling faces all lit by the light of the monitor..”

You can see similar standards in other advertising. Notice how many beer commercials have 4 guys (camping, watching the game, whatever). 3 are white, the 4th is black. And how many judges on television shows/movies are black females.



derek 01.11.06 at 8:01 am

I have heard this, from people horrified that I do it to my own books, but I’ve never seen what they’re talking about. Having read Jasper Milvain’s explanation, I now realise that they are misapplying something they’ve heard from conservators, and I will continue to do it to my own books, because:

1) I never tear my pages when I turn them because a Post-It got trapped, although I sometimes tear them in other accidents

1a) Generally speaking, of all the damage, tearing, staining, folding, discoloration, and marking that has ever befallen my books, Post-Its are about #299 on the list of causes. The #1 cause is a combination of time and the poor quality of the paper in the books themselves

2) I don’t have any fine antique papers

3) I’m not keeping the books for centuries

4) They’re my books


Slocum 01.11.06 at 8:07 am

Not to worry — Google will have ’em all digitized long before the rectangular traces of post-it glue burn holes through the pages.


marsha 01.11.06 at 8:18 am

“When in fact the only time five people are ever staring at the same lit computer screen is when one of them is saying something like ‘really? even the off button doesn’t work?”

That or “Look! Paris Hilton made a sex tape!”


Martin Wisse 01.11.06 at 9:04 am

Simple rule really: don’t mess up library books, though post-its are slightly more defensible than those idiots who write or underline in library books.

With ink

On every page

At every second line


Jere Majava 01.11.06 at 9:29 am

I’ve found these DIY paper notes a good alternative.


John Holbo 01.11.06 at 9:45 am

But Marsha, those five people watching Paris are rarely multi-ethnical, mixed-gender crowds. (Admittedly, neither are those that marvel at the totally of the system failure.)


derek 01.11.06 at 9:51 am

Simple rule: take the Post-Its out before you give the book back. I bet they can’t tell the book was “damaged” if you do that.


harry b 01.11.06 at 10:18 am

I think Derek is right. If the book is yours and you don’t intend to keep it for more than a lifetime post-its etc are fine. If the book belongs to library then do not to do it anything that you would not do to a book kindly lent to you by someone you know only very slightly whom you know wants to keep her books in the best possible condition. No post-its, just in case.

But I can’t let martin wisse’s comment pass without mentioning the books I have seen in which whole pages have been gone through line-by-line with yellow highlighter. Doing that even to one’s own books seems odd at best.


Kate Nepveu 01.11.06 at 10:23 am

Re: commericals featuring a mix of genders and ethnicities–

Scott Westerfeld has dubbed this the “missing black woman formation,” pointing out how often you see commercials or movies with a white guy, a black guy, and a white woman.

It’s one of those things you see *all the time* once you’ve heard the concept.


harry b 01.11.06 at 10:25 am

And now I’ve seen the Cambridge University tour I am surprised they missed out the use of banana skins as bookmarks — such behaviour leaves both marks and a chroinc smell. Maybe they are lucky enough never to have experienced it.


Patrick 01.11.06 at 10:38 am

Regarding the underlining/highlighting of library books, my favorite is when they begin highlighting the first page of the first chapter, highlight every other sentence, then stop by page 5.

Where’s the perserverance?


Henry (not that Henry) 01.11.06 at 11:47 am

There is a place for marginalia: for details see the first chapter of Myles na gCopaleen’s book, “The Best of Myles.”


Peter 01.11.06 at 2:43 pm

The people to ask about this would be the CIA. I recall reading an article a few years back about a major joint research project between the CIA and the Library of Congress to study preservation of books using various chemicals on different combinations of inks and papers. The study involved automated contraptions to lower books into acid baths (or was it antacid baths?) and to turn their pages, and cost millions to undertake. Perhaps, with their mind
on the country’s literary treasures, this explains the CIA’s intelligence failures in recent years.


Jon 01.11.06 at 2:47 pm

freddie, bending the corners of library books will also, as far as I’m concerned, condemn you to one of the circles of Hell. Albeit a different circle than the one reserved for those who use highligters.

Meanwhile, I’m distressed to learn about the damage caused by post-its, which I have been using with some abandon on library books. I will henceforth desist.

The only worse crime than the defacement of library books is when students make marks on books kindly lent them by their professors. And when they try to rub out their pencil marks, and the pages start coming out, that really doesn’t help either…

(Yes, I speak from personal experience.)


Daniel 01.11.06 at 3:46 pm

the library has a forensic lab?


Ronald Brak 01.11.06 at 3:57 pm

Oh god, I post-ited Francis Fukuyama! I hope he doesn’t come and end my history.


fjm 01.11.06 at 4:37 pm

My own experience is that you should not use post-its on older paperbacks as the paper will crumble when you try to remove it.

Otherwise, they are safe on your own books as long as you don’t leave them long. The little transparent and coloured tags tend to fall off after a while but I suspct they dry the paper.


'As you know' Bob 01.11.06 at 9:32 pm

Was this a university library in Singapore?

Because, you know, most American university libraries would just be glad that the book came back….


John Holbo 01.12.06 at 12:13 am

No, the university library was not in Singapore. It was a top Ivy League school whose identity I will not divulge just in case my friend was exaggerating for humor value. (I wouldn’t want to get any librarians angry at me, passing along unverified rumors of post-it inquisitions.) I think the existence of an on-campus forensic lab for paper testing probably has to do with the existence of certain extremely valuable old collections at this school.


magistra 01.12.06 at 2:11 am

I saw the real rather than the virtual Cambridge University Library exhibition on the dangers in 2005. I notice that the online version of the exhibition has removed one of the more unfortunate captions in the original version:

‘Never leave books near mice, pigeons, children or other vermin that are likely to damage books.


Anderson 01.12.06 at 6:30 pm

“Regarding the underlining/highlighting of library books, my favorite is when they begin highlighting the first page of the first chapter, highlight every other sentence, then stop by page 5. Where’s the perseverance?”

That’s the point where they dropped the course in the 1st week.


Another Damned Medievalist 01.12.06 at 8:35 pm

I gloss my books. I dog-ear them. I have a gajillion post-its. At least, the books I teach regularly are all messed up that way. What else would I do, walk into class with a tidy pile of notes referring to page numbers and line numbers in Roland and Antigone? I don’t think so! Of course, I have ‘nice’ copies, too, and generally treat my books very well. I have paperbacks you can’t tell have been opened, even though I’ve read them a couple of times.


clew 01.12.06 at 8:37 pm

I think the University of Washington warns us not to use Post-Its. Pity, but they’re their books. I expect I should be typing all my comments into a bibtex-exporting database anyhow.

I asked a librarian if the thin copper pointers harmed books, and she hadn’t heard of them one way or the other.


david tiley 01.12.06 at 11:53 pm

I know this is very very petty but..

The Cambridge site on book damage from 8. refers to the “Legal Deposit Libraries” and “Agency for the Legal Depsot Libraries” almost atlernately.

I am surprised that no-one has alerted us to the damaging properties of tears of frustration. Many a modern scholar’s books will dissolve in less than fifty years.

Comments on this entry are closed.