Top 20 Library Scandals in Recent History

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

Airing dirty laundry is rather frowned upon in the field of librarianship. It ranks right up there with self-promotion as a big faux pas, probably because we don’t want to make ourselves look bad for the outside world, image-conscious bunch that we are. Nevertheless, in my years as a librarian, I’ve heard of many shameful incidents. My first library director thought to keep child pornography on his work computer, for starters. Rather than practice self-shushing about these events, I believe it’s best to view them as learning opportunities.

Hopefully these examples show how at times it’s worth turning our gaze inward to discover how we can do things better. That’s why, although there’s certainly plenty of cases of library patrons behaving badly — from hackers to politicians to exhibitionists (to say nothing about irresponsible authors) — the focus of this list is primarily on librarians, along with the government and vendors that we do business with. So then, in the spirit of those words from Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit here by me."

20. Not While Urine the Library

As the American Library Association puts it, “Volunteers are essential to a successful library program — and at a time when deep budget cuts are the norm, there are many libraries that depend on the help of dedicated volunteers, who do everything from shelving books to covering the phones.” Dealing with volunteers carries a unique set of considerations; ensuring their presence is a net benefit to library operations can be a challenge. In 2006, a public library system in Florida found itself without volunteers after mandating urine drug tests for all workers.

19. Save Browser

The eviction of a cat from a Texas public library by the city council sparked an international outcry in 2016. After petitions and protests, the ruling was reversed. Browser is still there. The councilman who supported his removal, on the other hand, was voted out of office.

18. ProQuest vs. Ebsco

Competition may help keep prices down, but libraries can get caught in the middle when rival companies try to outdo each other. EBSCO and Ex Libris (now a ProQuest company) both offer integrated discovery products. If you want to include records from your EBSCO subscriptions in Ex Libris results, however, it’s not so easy. The Ebsco API excludes metadata which customers pay for access to, because Ebsco says that it would “harm library research were these to be included” — whereas, in Ex Libris’ words, “EBSCO wants to impede clients’ ability to use other discovery solutions and require libraries [to] use the EDS discovery product.”

17. The Library Hotel

Lest you forget that Dewey® is a proprietary classification system, a New York City hotel which figured it was a cute idea to number rooms by the Dewey Decimal System found this out the hard way: they were slapped with a lawsuit for trademark infringement in 2003. The case was settled after the parties reached an agreement for the hotel to continue offering rooms with “a library of books that relate to the room’s specific Dewey Decimal® theme.” Dewey is still used by most (but not all) public libraries in the United States. See also the OCLC policy change.

16. Get Tasered @ Your Library

Before both the pepper-spraying at UC Davis and the original “Don’t tase me bro!” was the UCLA taser incident of 2006. Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a student using the library campus computer lab, did not show his required identification when asked. After a scuffle, he was tasered by campus police while handcuffed. Videos of the event went viral and UCLA agreed to settle an ensuing lawsuit for $220,000.

15. Stealing Library Airwaves

Many public libraries offer free Internet access via wireless networks. There have been at least two cases, from Nantucket to Alaska, of library patrons having run-ins with law enforcement personnel for using the library’s wireless from outside of the building, purportedly committing “theft of signal.” It should be mentioned that not everyone’s a fan of WiFi.

14. Won’t Someone Please Think of the Freshmen?

In 2006, conservative librarian Scott Savage found himself facing formal charges made by two faculty members against him for harassment based on sexual orientation. The reason? His book recommendations for The Ohio State University freshmen class (including a title by Rick Santorum as well as The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised As Freedom). Scott later resigned and ultimately lost a legal case against the university.

13. The Wyoming Mudflap

To promote their online Chilton shop manuals subscription, the Wyoming Library Association reappropriated an image of a woman’s silhouette seen on semi trucks for the 2007 “library mudflap girl” advertising campaign. Although some took offense, the icon generated both publicity and increased library card sign-ups.

12. Independent Cuban “Libraries”

It’s no secret that librarians are a fairly left-leaning group. One study found, “the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations [among librarians] was a whopping 223 to 1,” for example. The American Library Association’s resolutions have covered political topics such as the Iraq war, gun control, transitioning from fossil fuels, national healthcare, immigration, human rights, and Palestine. One movement that ALA did not support, however, was the mission of “Independent Cuban Libraries” operating within the Castro regime, much to the chagrin of their conservative backers. The ALA’s initial statements about the Trump administration have also proven controversial.

11. “Unlawful” Records Release

Most librarians are familiar with our longstanding professional commitment to reader privacy. Certain library materials contain similarly confidential information which should be protected. In 2015, two University of Oregon employees, including the Head of Special Collections and Archives, were fired for giving out what should have been restricted (and sensitive) information from the university’s presidential archives.

Honorable Mention: Censorship is for the Birds

Libraries routinely face objections to controversial materials that have been selected for their collections. This sometimes results in items being restricted, censored, or withdrawn from library shelves. One of the most challenged books of the past decade is And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about two real male penguins that raised a penguin chick.

10. Beantown’s Misplaced Items

The president of the Boston Public Library resigned in 2015, following a scandal involving missing rare artwork (which was later found). Aside from more mundane incidents involving employee theft and embezzlement, other notable cases dealing with library staff include the “pretty librarian” lawsuit and the Library Congress firing a transgender hire.

9. A Legal Mandate to Say “Illegal Aliens”

Subject Headings serve as standard cataloging labels to make tagged items easier to find, and have likewise evolved to more accurately reflect the language of the day. Previous headings include “Negroes,” and so on. Last year, the Library of Congress announced the Subject Heading “Illegal Aliens” would be replaced with the terms “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration.” Soon afterward, Tea Party Caucus member Diane Black introduced a bill (the “Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act”) to halt this renaming process. More recently, an appropriations rider was passed to force the Library of Congress to retain the “aliens” designation, as the term is used in the United States Code.

8. Self-destructing E-Books

Publishers are fighting tooth and nail to retain traditional profit models in an age of online access and decreased distribution costs. In 2011, HarperCollins announced a new licensing program for e-books which would limit the number of times digital copies could be viewed by library patrons. Librarians were not amused, and continue to push for more equitable contracts with vendors.

7. The Rise and Fall of Beall’s List

It seemed like such a simple idea. Create a list of journals that charge exorbitant publication fees so that authors could avoid falling prey to what are essentially fake and vanity presses. University of Colorado Denver librarian Jeffrey Beall launched Beall’s List to do just that in 2010. In the following years, Beall was hounded by unproven claims that he was trying to extort money from publishers (a la Yelp!) and even a $1 billion libel lawsuit brought by a named publisher. It also came to light that Beall is a harsh critic of the open access movement. This of course made him a bit of a pariah in the open access community, leading to “the case for treating Beall as a questionable source.” In early 2017, the plug was pulled on the list.

6. Joe Murphy is a [citation needed]

“In case people have forgotten, we are neither the police nor the judicial system. We do not have to adhere to their evidentiary requirements. We do not have to assume innocence. We don’t have to build a ‘case’ against someone. We don’t, in actual fact, require ‘proof’ that would hold up in a court of law. We don’t need to gather evidence and conduct investigations.”

That was the statement offered to back up a claim that librarian and futurist Joe Murphy was a “known sexual predator.” Upon being sued for libel, amidst petitions against the lawsuit and a legal defense fund, a retraction and apology for that accusation was made as part of the settlement. After the whole affair, many within our supposedly evidence-based profession were left wondering, “what the hell just happened?”

5. Harvard Restructuring & NYPL Renovation

Change comes hard for libraries, if for no other reason than people want to preserve their current conditions. A reorganization at Harvard University Libraries met stiff resistance yet eventually succeeded. An attempt to modernize the New York Public Library, by moving infrequently-used materials off site in favor of having more open and usable spaces, was scrapped after widespread opposition.

4. Gormangate

In 2005, ALA President Michael Gorman caused a stir by making disparaging comments about blogs, Web 2.0, and digitization as a whole (calling the way Google Books “atomized” books a form of “techno-vandalism,” for instance), while at the same time claiming, “my views on ‘blogs’ have nothing to do with my activities as ALA president-elect or president.” Such misbegotten progenies made many library professionals lament over having a leader apparently so “dedicated to bombasting us back to the Stone Age.”

3. Weeding: Our Dirty Little Secret

There comes a time when an item on a library shelf will never again be read. And this point could actually arrive immediately upon it being first parked there, especially if you’re in a research library. Regular deselection of these materials from a library’s holdings is therefore a natural and necessary component of responsible collection management. Nonetheless, for some reason it makes for splashy headlines and even protests when this practice is discovered. In 2016, bibliomaniacs at a Florida public library went so far as creating fake circulation records to avoid data-driven weeding practices and also possibly boost their funding.

2. Mismanagement of the Library of Congress

Multiple critical reports of operational and administrative deficiencies at the nation’s library were published during James Billington’s final years as the Librarian of Congress. The Reagan-appointed scholar, who was known for not using e-mail, retired in 2015 at the age of eighty-six. Carla Hayden, former president of the American Library Association and director of the Baltimore public library system, became the new Librarian of Congress in 2016. Many librarians rejoiced at the fresh opportunities now available from having the first woman, the first African-American, and even the first librarian to serve in the position.

1. “Hysterical” Librarians

In the wake of the USA PATRIOT Act’s expanded surveillance powers, librarians took to protesting law enforcement’s new abilities for obtaining library records without much oversight. Although Attorney General John Ashcroft dubbed these concerns “baseless hysteria,” librarians in Connecticut refused to cooperate with the FBI’s request for user data and challenged a National Security Letter in federal court. Due to a gag order, the then-anonymous group was known as the Connecticut Four. The government eventually gave up on the case and their silence was broken.


In gathering entries for this list, I found it depressing to browse through decades of stories about how we need to do more in supporting open access; fighting against the erosion of Fair Use and privacy; and embracing technological advancements. Careerism and continued hand-wringing over bookless libraries, journal and textbook costs, and future trends continues, while the world around us has evolved considerably. Commercial powerhouses now exist where libraries once stood, largely because we didn’t stake our claim in new areas. We’re also the reason Sci-Hub exists, I would argue. Meanwhile, a sizable chunk of the profession continues to preach a form of paleo-librarianship, against altering what we do in any significant way.

Millions of years ago, forests ruled the earth. A contender, able to both start and survive regularly-needed brush fires, was subsequently able to usurp much of the planet’s land surface. Grasslands exist in abundance because they are more adaptable than trees. Those of us who believe libraries must remain as strong and sturdy as an old oak should consider this metaphor. We can do better than cling to a shrinking purpose. It’s enough to make me think how, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.