How a Scottish library worker solved the mystery of the underlined page numbers
Georgia Grainger discovered the library's elderly patrons use secret codes to keep track of what they've read
Librarian Georgia Grainger was baffled this week when an elderly patron asked her why every book she plucked from the library's shelves had the seventh page number underlined.
"At first I was pretty confused," Grainger, a library and information assistant at the Charleston Library in Dundee, Scotland, told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"I hadn't heard about it before or anything and kind of thought she was making it up, or maybe she'd done it herself."
- AS IT HAPPENS: Librarian makes her case against Little Free Libraries
- AS IT HAPPENS: Meet the novelist who translated Harry Potter into Scots
Grainger checked, and found several books with the underlined Page No. 7. The woman insisted she did not mark them herself.
"I think our Page 7 vandal is quite well-read," she said.
The targeted tomes had one just thing in common.
"It was what we fondly call 'Wee-old-women books,' which are a type of book which are very popular with a certain part of our clientele," Grainer said.
"They're kind of typical romances set in World War II Britain, which have, you know, like a nurse falling in love with a soldier, and there's a little bit of drama, but they're usually quite nice and romantic."
The librarian posted about this literary mystery on Twitter, and started concocting wild theories in her mind.
"I read quite a lot myself and have a bit of an overactive imagination," she said.
"I thought maybe it was a serial killer and it was some sort of secret code. Or maybe there were spies in our library and they were using our library as a drop point for secret messages."
'They're in all the books'
Eventually, Grainger decided to kick it up the chain.
"Our head librarian was busy at the time that I was off on this mad fantasy journey. She came back to the desk, so I thought I should tell her before I go calling the police or anything," Grainger said.
"And she just laughed at me. She was like, 'Yeah, I'm surprised you haven't seen them before. They're in all the books.'"
Apparently, Grainger learned, elderly patrons of the library use their own personal secret codes to mark which books they've already read.
They might mark a symbol on the front or back cover, or underline or circle the page number that corresponds to their street address, she said.
"It's a code to themselves or sometimes to other family members," Grainger said.
"So, for example, if their son or their daughter is nipping into the library to pick up something for them, they know what books their parents have already read."
A global phenomenon?
When Grainger announced the curious case's conclusion on Twitter, several people piped in to say they've witnessed the same phenomenon at their local libraries.
"I've been told that it happens across the world," she said.
"People have been talking about Australia and Canada and America, and even someone said that their Russian grandmother did it. So I think it's pretty universal."
My Nanna used to do it, put a dot on page 24- the number of her house—@Ladyprutts
My grandad used to put his initials on the back so people who fetched the books for him knew he's already read it. There were quite a few other initials on those books too.—@britishpictures
an old gf worked at a library where they'd write their initials on the title page in pencil. Mainly in romances. So you'd get one out and there would be 15 sets of initials in a neat little column. Glorious.—@pmattessi
Oddly enough, Grainger said there's really no need for the personal codes. The library's computer system already flags readers' history for them.
"I think they quite like to have their codes," she said.
"Many of them seem to have started it before we had all the computer systems, and they're kind of used to it and doesn't do anyone any harm so we're happy enough with them keeping up their secret messages."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.
If you've seen anything like this at your local library, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling our Talkback line at 416-205-5687.