Steven Lehman checked out a book on Holocaust denial from the Wentworth Library in West St. Paul and found the words "[Expletive] the Holocult" scrawled across the title page.

At the librarian's desk, Lehman learned this wasn't the first time someone had defaced a book about the Holocaust at the library in Dakota County.

"I was shocked and suddenly felt how close these thoughts and feelings are around us," Lehman said.

In fact, the library has a recurring problem with offensive writing in Holocaust-oriented books, said Murray Wilson, Wentworth Library's branch manager.

The writing, which Wilson has seen five to 10 times over more than four years, is always in black ink. Sometimes it's just the word "Lies!" Other times, articles have been pasted into the books, though Wilson said he doesn't remember the subjects.

"Sometimes books were so badly defaced they had to be thrown away," Wilson said.

"Whoever is doing it is quite persistent," Wilson said. "They're trying to make a statement."

Officials from the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom said they have seen an increase in hate-driven incidents reported in libraries across the country since the November election, when the association began tracking them.

Since then, there have been 34 incidents reported, compared to just one reported from 2014 through November 2016, said Jamie LaRue, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. Most have been incidents of vandalism, including writing on books, other media or library walls, LaRue said.

Most of the vandalism has targeted immigrants, Muslims and Jews, said Julie Todaro, past president of the library association.

Hard to catch the defacer

"Some of these things we discover immediately, and some are like little ticking time bombs for someone to discover later," Todaro said.

Vandalism of public property with anti-Semitic symbols and words is a persistent problem, said Carin Mrotz, executive director of St. Paul-based Jewish Community Action.

Mrotz said group representatives planned to attend a vigil Tuesday night in South St. Paul in response to recent anti-Semitic and racist vandalism at a school and playground.

She urged people not to dismiss the incidents as the work of kids, and to listen to those hurt by them.

When Wentworth Library staff find a book has been defaced, they either white out the words or use a label to obscure them.

It's impossible to catch people who vandalize books, Wilson said, though the library used to try. Years ago, staff would confront patrons who returned all types of damaged books. Borrowers always denied it and said the damage or writing was there when they got the books.

Wilson said no one knows whether the offensive messages are being written while materials are at the library or after they are checked out. Out of 200,000 items checked out annually at Wentworth, only about 100 are damaged or defaced in some way, including highlighting or other writing.

Margaret Stone, the director of Dakota County Libraries, said incidents of anti-Semitic writing in her district are uncommon.

"It is a concern, but it's not a huge issue for us," Stone said. "There are sometimes issues with people deciding that public libraries either shouldn't have certain books or are using that as a way to express maybe an opinion."

Faith discussion series

Mary Beth Schubert, a Dakota County spokeswoman, said the libraries have tried to foster discussion about religion, organizing a "Religion and Faith" discussion series in February and March. That series featured local faith leaders talking about what they believe and how to be sensitive to people of other religions.

Other metro-area county library systems, including Ramsey, Hennepin and Scott, said they haven't had reports of any similar vandalism.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781