Librarian Sharon McKellar of California’s Oakland Public Library has been collecting personal objects she finds in returned books — an assortment of make-shift bookmarks ranging from paper scraps to photographs, doodles, and letters. In 2013, she decided to publish scans of these items on the library’s website and sent a memo to other librarians to ask if they had found anything to contribute.
“It turned out a lot of library staff members had held onto little things they’d found,” McKellar told Hyperallergic in an interview. So far, she has scanned and published around 350 of these objects and says she has an equal amount waiting to be uploaded as other librarians keep sending her more.
McKellar started working at the library in 2003, and though her roles there have shifted over the years, nurturing an archive of those scraps left behind by readers has always been tangential to her actual job. Now, the idea of looking at these objects has enticed thousands. Back in July, Annie Rauwerda highlighted McKellar’s project in a Tweet that received 20,000 likes.
But this wasn’t the first time the internet had become enthralled by this specific type of ephemera. Another social media account called “In Used Books,” run by a high school teacher in Oklahoma, has amassed almost 20,000 followers since it began in 2018.
French teacher Emma Smreker started the account when she found a receipt from a Montreal cafe nestled inside the pages of a book that was a birthday gift. She said that it made her think about how the book — and the little slip of paper — had made its way all the way from Eastern Canada to Oklahoma, and she set out to find more things like it.
Now, Smreker visits thrift stores like Goodwill, Salvation Army, and used bookshops to rifle through the pages on their shelves. (She said that smaller bookstores tend to flip through the books they receive and pull out the types of objects she’s looking for).
Smreker said she finds something almost every single time she looks. “It’s one of the most common things actually,” she said. “People just leave their bookmarks in there and forget.”
Those bookmarks are mostly index cards, actual bookmarks, playing cards, and occasionally money, but less than a year into her newfound hobby, Smreker found a letter dated 1893 in a flea market in Norman, Oklahoma. It was a poem addressed to a newspaper in Ohio.
“If I had this copy, then he actually never sent it,” Smreker said, explaining that the poem was still in its envelope. She tracked down the author’s descendants and then sent the poem to the newspaper it was originally intended for, and almost 130 years later, the poem was printed in the Lancaster Eagle Gazette.
“For me, that’s the one that makes my heart so happy,” Smreker said. “That I was able to finish what he had started and get his poem published.”
On her page, Smreker asks her visitors for leads in returning objects to their original owners. Her account jumped in popularity when she reunited a family with a photo strip: The family had since moved to Texas, but the wife and mother of the father and daughter in the photograph sent Smreker an Instagram message.
At times, Smreker and McKellar’s findings feel almost too personal to see, proof of unspoken thoughts and long-gone relationships that seem too earnest to grace a social media feed. Yet some of the objects that Smreker has found — like a thank you note to a teacher and a fake marriage proposal — are so uplifting or irreverent that it’s easy to picture why, in an endless Instagram scroll, people love them so much.
One of McKellar’s favorites is a drawing, ostensibly created by a child signed as “CJ,” of him and his father. The father, brandishing a pitchfork and grinning to reveal a sharp set of teeth, looms large above the small, frowning CJ.
“I picture that that dad did something very innocuous, and as a person who works with children and now has children of my own, the kind of things I do that would inspire them to draw me like that is something like making them eat a carrot before they have five cookies,” McKellar said.
She’s also particularly curious about the relationship between two people named Michael and Caroline. In a postcard, Michael details a “recipe” for Caroline: “1. Meet a man; 2. Buy a house; 3. Have a baby; 4. Make a home; 5. Repeat step 3 as required.”
“A lot of it is about wondering,” she said. “What I love about it, and I think other people do too, is that you have just this piece of paper that could mean so many different things, and you can imagine,” McKellar continued, adding that she wants to launch a program in which library visitors write a short story about the objects.
Despite their ambiguity, Smreker thinks these scraps tell a lot about the human condition.
“We inadvertently leave little traces of ourselves behind when we use a scrap of paper or we decide to put flowers in a book, or any of the kinds of odds and ends that people use for bookmarks,” Smreker said. “I thought it was a cool glimpse into human nature.”