A receipt, scrap of paper or even an actual bookmark is commonly used to mark a place in a book.
What about hundreds of dollars? A wrapped cheese single? Filled out tax forms? Real bacon?
These are only a few of the more unusual things shelvers in libraries across Southeastern Wisconsin have found in returned or donated books.
Karen Grochowski was the point person to sort through book donations and also worked on returns at the Franklin Public Library, 9151 W. Loomis Road. She recently retired after 18 years at the library and still has many of the things she found in books over the years.
“I think it just gives a sort of interesting glimpse into the life of our books lead, where they’ve been, that kind of thing,” Grochowski said.
Some of the more “standard” bookmarks Grochowski found include airplane boarding passes, grocery store receipts, photos, business cards and tickets to events. In summertime, it’s common to find sand between the plastic and paper book covers, she said.
Many of these items are common for other libraries, too.
“We find all kinds of treasures in books: receipts, pictures, ticket stubs, coloring pages, cash, letters, Pokémon cards. Basically, if you can stick it in a book, then we have probably seen it,” said Alanna Maddox, circulation supervisor for the Wauwatosa Public Library7635 W. North Ave.
Grochowski said Post-it notes are also commonly used as bookmarks. She once found about 60 notes in a single book. She has kept a collection and is considering creating a piece of Post-it note art one day.
“We do find a lot of actual bookmarks in books,” she added. “We do try to return if they have emotional value.”
Trying to return bookmarks to their rightful owners
For sentimental items, such as pictures and letters, or financial items like bills, checks and cash, Maddox said the library will attempt to contact the last patron who checked out the book.
“We are often successful with returning these ‘bookmarks’ to their rightful owners,” she said. “But if a patron doesn’t respond or we can’t determine which book the item came from, we tack it to a board in our circulation workroom in hopes that they will return and ask for it back.”
One thing that can complicate things in Wauwatosa is the library uses an automatic book sorter that empties into bins in a workroom.
“When the bins fill up, shelvers empty them,” Maddox said. “This is where most of these personal items are found, at the bottom of these bins. There is no way to connect these with their owners.”
Eventually the bookmarks are disposed of or recycled if they are not claimed.
Betsy Bleck, library director for the Oconomowoc Public Library200 W. South St., said sometimes staff will recognize people in photos left in books, and they can call the family directly.
“Earlier this year, we put a little display up in the lobby so people could reclaim their photos,” she said. “If the item has a person’s name on it, we always contact the person. If we find cash in a book — happens more than one might think — we find out who it was checked out to and get in touch with them.”
On one occasion, a collection of family photos was included in a donated book. One was an official White House photo of a young man meeting President Bill Clinton.
“The young man was wearing a 1996 Olympic jacket, so we figured he was an Olympic athlete,” Bleck said. “Because we didn’t have any record of who donated the book, we put up some of the photos until another patron recognized the family, and we were able to return the item.”
Before Grochowski’s retirement, a “very sweet bookmark made by a child” of 7 or 8 years old was found in a book. A photo of the child was on both sides of the bookmark. Grochowski contacted the patron who had previously checked out the book, and the woman quickly went to the library.
“It was specifically made for this grandmother,” Grochowski said. “She was so thankful we took the time to call.”
Another thankful patron was a grandmother in Greendale. When Franklin Public Library Director Jennifer Loeffel worked at the Greendale Public Library, 5647 Broad St. — “many moons ago,” she said — $200 was found in a book.
“Turns out, it was an elderly woman, and the money was given to her by her kids so she could have her washing machine repaired,” Loeffel said. “She had been frantic because she didn’t know where she had misplaced it.”
Other unique finds in returns
Tristan Marshall, the current library director for the South Milwaukee Public Library, 1907 10th Ave., previously worked as circulation supervisor at the Wauwatosa Public Library. There she found or heard about many unique bookmarks, including Kleenex, McDonald’s food wrappers, even bacon.
Bleck said there’s a legend among public library staff about finding bacon in books.
“I assumed that was apocryphal, but I was wrong,” she said, adding that there are several first-hand accounts about librarians finding slabs of bacon in books.
Other interesting things found inside books in Oconomowoc include hot sauce and ketchup packets, football tickets, prayers, drawings, playing cards, personal medical and legal papers and a bar coaster, according to Bleck.
A dead fish was once found in the book drop at the Oconomowoc Public Library, Bleck said.
Marshall said a pair of running shorts was found in a book return bin in Wauwatosa.
Shelver Kevin Dykstra at the South Milwaukee Public Library once found potatoes in the return bin.
Kori Hall, marketing and communications manager for the Waukesha Public Library, 321 Wisconsin Ave., said “people will use anything that’s flat as a bookmark.”
Staff in Waukesha have found many common items — shopping lists, cash and photos — but also many more unique items, including a wrapped cheese single, Social Security card, credit cards, driver’s licenses, a blank personal check, obituary cards, leaves (especially in fall), bills, birthday and Christmas cards, filled-out tax forms, wedding invites, class notes, and, of course, library cards.
Similar to other libraries, staff in Waukesha work to return important bookmarks.
“If it’s an old receipt, leaves, or something like that, we just dispose of it,” Hall said. “If it’s something with personal information, or something that might be of sentimental value, we contact the patron by phone and ask if they’d like to come in and pick it up.”
Donated books often include surprises
Not just in returned books, interesting items are often found in donated books.
“When it’s in returned books, we always attempt to trace back to the owner using our records, but for donated books, it’s a bit harder,” Loeffel said. “We do find a lot of pictures.”
Grochowski was responsible for going through books donated to the Franklin Public Library to assess whether the titles were needed in the library’s collection. Those that were not needed would go to the book sale.
“It’s nearly impossible to track down where they came from, because we’re not sure who donated what,” Grochowski said. “In those cases, I had very little success in returning those items.”
One of the most memorable finds, which Grochowski thinks fell into the box by accident, was a meat cleaver. She kept it.
Another was a saw blade.
Some may say she was lucky she didn’t hurt herself on those finds. One more historically lucky discovery was a four-leaf clover pressed in a book from the 1800s.
“That was one of the more interesting finds,” Grochowski said.
She also often found personal notes and drawings.
“I love the little doodles that people do; those are fun,” she said.
Years ago, the Oconomowoc library came into possession of a historic family Bible and staff wanted to return it to its rightful owner.
“A then-staff member was a genealogy buff in her free time, so she was able to use only the info . . . to figure out the name and location of the family, who now lives on the East Coast,” Bleck said. “The library was able to contact them and return the Bible.”
The family was thrilled to have a piece of their family history back.
The moral of this story?
Perhaps it is to always flip through your library returns and donations before dropping them off. Also, there are some things (like bacon), that probably shouldn’t be used as bookmarks.