As It Happens

This librarian made a catalogue out of all the notes readers left behind in books

It's been almost 10 years since a librarian in Oakland, Calif., started an online catalogue of the makeshift bookmarks readers used and left behind — and she's built up quite a collection.

Sharon McKellar and her colleagues found more than 350 items, including love letters

A smiling woman with short hair and bangs perched in a library aisle.
Sharon McKeller is a librarian at the Oakland Public Library. (Icarian Photography)

Story Transcript

It's been almost 10 years since a librarian in Oakland, Calif., started an online catalogue of the makeshift bookmarks readers used and left behind — and she's built up quite a collection.

From anonymous love letters to children's doodles, the collection offers a rare glimpse into people's lives.

"The more people are finding out about it, the more excited people are," librarian Sharon McKellar told As It Happens guest host Paul Hunter. "People just seem to really enjoy digging through and finding favourites."

Many of the items are handwritten messages on Post-it notes, but there are also receipts, concert tickets, postcards and trading cards. McKellar even came across a crochet hook once.

When McKellar began the project, she put out a call to her colleagues across the Oakland Public Library's 18 locations. They sent her the items they found inside returned books and she scanned each one, organizing them by type and audience. Then she shared them on the library's website.

A letter that reads: "I guess she's over her head, and maybe I am too. Or maybe she's riding right on top of a never before had wave. I can hardly believe that there are so many levels or dimensions, a person can get lost in. I'm not lost. I'm jus standing here holding out an empty hand."
A love letter left behind by a reader in an Oakland library book. (Oakland Public Library)

According to the librarian, there are now more than 350 items in the catalogue — and quite a few of them are love notes.

"Those are particularly fun because I always wonder if it was left by the receiver or the person who was planning to give it to somebody," she said.

Curious notes

Up until recently, the story behind each item was a mystery. But that changed last month when Jamee Longacre from nearby Concord, Calif., recognized a green sticky note with her handwriting on it.

McKellar received an email from Longacre explaining how she had never visited an Oakland library and had probably written that note for someone else, who must have left it in the book.

Her note described the BRAT diet, which consists of bananas, rice cereal, applesauce and tomatoes, to help babies with constipation. 

Longacre told NPR News, which recently published a feature about McKeller's collection, that she remembers writing the note, but not the context.

A children's drawing on a piece of loose-leaf paper. A large figure with a big round head, horns, pointy teeth and a pitchfork is labelled 'Dad.' A small stick figure with a frowny face is labelled "C.J."
Sharon Mckeller's favourite item from the collection is a children's drawing labelled 'A very large pencil drawing of a devil.' (Oakland Public Library)

McKellar's favourite item from the collection paints a bit more of a clear picture. It is a children's drawing, which she's labelled, "A very large pencil drawing of a devil." There is a big smiley face with teeth, devil horns, a tail and a pitchfork that's labelled "Dad." Beside it is a tiny figure labelled "C.J." with a big frown on its face.

"Poor Dad has done something to upset C.J.," the librarian said with a laugh. "I just love that this kid scribbled it out on a piece of notebook paper, and we got to find it."

A pink sticky note with a rose image, and the words 'Ples dont say funny words!' etched in pencil, in what looks like a child's handwriting. It appears to be signed 'Eli.'
A pink sticky note found inside an Oakland library book. (Oakland Public Library)

Writing by hand in a digital era

McKellar says what enjoys the most about the project is that these notes show local readers are still writing by hand.

"As digital as we are, there's still something that many of us like about an actual piece of paper," she said.

"We still get receipts at the store. People are still writing their to-do list down. Even those of us who really do live a lot of our lives online.

"I hope it isn't going away.... I don't think we'll stop finding things — pieces of paper."

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Ashley Fraser.

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