Malignant tissue expectorated upon the pages
August 25, 2019 6:08 AM   Subscribe

What lurks in the pages of a library book? Knowledge, entertainment... and disease?

Joseph Hayes on the great book scare of the late 19th and early 20th century, summarizing research by Annika Mann and Gerald S. Greenberg:
Concerns about spreading disease through the lending of books would have serious impacts on the proliferation and growth of libraries. At a time when support for public libraries was growing nationwide, book-lending institutions faced a major challenge from the disease scare...

The great book scare reached fever pitch in the summer of 1879, Mann says. That year, a librarian in Chicago named W.F. Poole reported that he had been asked whether books could transmit disease. Upon further investigation, Poole located several doctors who claimed to have knowledge of disease-spreading books. People in England started asking the same question, and concerns about diseased books developed “roughly contemporaneously” in the United States and Britain, Mann says...

The “great book scare” rose from a combination of new theories about infection and a distaste for the concept of public libraries themselves. Many Americans and Britons feared the library because it provided easy access to what they saw as obscene or subversive books, argues Mann. And while fears of disease were distinct from fears of seditious content, “opponents of the public library system” helped stoke the fires of the book scare, Greenberg writes.
posted by metaquarry (28 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
As a librarian of some years' experience, I can state with authority that the worst thing that you're in danger of catching from books is an irresistible attraction to books that the Kool Kids won't approve of. I mean, we won't tell anyone that you keep checking out the Fifty Shades books over and over, but the circulation desk is right out there in the open...
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:24 AM on August 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

I had a really terrible case of norovirus or food poisoning or something like that back in 2010, around the time I was doing temporary work for a school library service (local schools would study different history/science/literature etc. projects each term and they'd request boxes of topic-related books from our library, which was a central depository that wasn't open to public lending).

To this day, even though I know it's much more likely that I picked up whatever made me sick from the restaurant I ate at the night I got sick, I still have a tiny bit of thinking along the lines of, "but of course it was some gross disease I contracted from handling books that had in turn been handled by most of the city's schoolchildren".

To summarise my thesis, there is a big distinction between actual germ theory and how most individual humans perceive likely contagion in various situations (i.e. we are dumb about how this stuff works even when we ought to - or even when we do! - know better).
posted by terretu at 6:24 AM on August 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

Kindle has saved my life
posted by sammyo at 6:40 AM on August 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

This is why I douse all of my library books in a dilute bleach solution shortly after checking them out.
posted by mittens at 7:06 AM on August 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

I suspect Mittens is joking. Then again - as a matter of habit, if the library book has a Brodart cover, it gets wiped down once it reaches chez Allen.

As for the interiors - I got nothing.

(See also (You think I could make that up?))
posted by BWA at 7:11 AM on August 25, 2019

Why I fear library books: bedbugs.
posted by apparently at 7:13 AM on August 25, 2019 [10 favorites]

Oh BWA, book dust is the worst. My first job in high school was as a page (yes that was the actual job title, no it was not an intentional pun) in a very old very large public library. The times when I got pressed into service shifting or weeding in the closed stacks I'd be blowing black gunk out my nose for days afterwards.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:18 AM on August 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

I bet the folks behind the idea that lending library books spread disease were aligned with the Let's Not Educate The Masses They Might Get Ideas people. And if they were the Koch grandparents.

That being said, I'm always a bit sad when I dive into my stack of library books and find crumbs, ugh; knowing that bugs are attracted. But worst of all (and thankfully less and less) is opening a library book and smelling cigarettes/tobacco. I'm allergic, sometimes it was so bad I couldn't handle the book at all.
posted by twentyfeetof tacos at 7:30 AM on August 25, 2019 [5 favorites]

I bet the folks behind the idea that lending library books spread disease were aligned with the Let's Not Educate The Masses They Might Get Ideas people.
The article posits that as a (partial) explanation, although it doesn't suggest that there was any organized campaign. It was more a cultural anxiety that got fused with a growing awareness of germ theory.

I'm a non-elderly adult who checks books out from the public library, and that has been pretty unusual in some places I've lived. (It's actually not considered weird in my current town, which reflects some things I love about the place I currently live.) And one thing that I've heard pretty frequently is that it's gross to check out books from the library, because you don't know who else has been handling them, and they could be full of yucky germs. I think that what this represents is that libraries are one of the few spaces that are shared by "respectable" people (and even when I've been really broke, I've always been respectable) and by people who are truly marginal. People complain nonstop about there being homeless people in libraries, and I think that's because most of us don't spend a lot of time in spaces where homeless people have equal claim to be there. I think that often when we talk about fear of germs, it's a semi-coded way to talk about fear of people, and the idea that library books are germy is kind of a stand-in for the idea that the library forces us to confront the dignity and citizenship of people whom we'd rather not think about, or at least whom we're rather not think about as people with dignity and citizenship.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:52 AM on August 25, 2019 [26 favorites]

I’m sure library books are fine, but I’d sort of like it to be widely believed that licking your finger/thumb in order to turn a page is a serious health risk.
posted by Segundus at 8:09 AM on August 25, 2019 [7 favorites]

As a former shelver, I can testify to the sheer amount of filth my hands accrued every day :D
posted by Calzephyr at 8:14 AM on August 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Around the time Kindles were coming on the market, I was having a terrible time with my local library--someone who like the same books I did was a smoker. Every book I checked out for a couple of months reeeeeeeked of smoke. I was bringing them home and dousing them with baking soda and leaving them in a bag for a day or so to see if I could get the stench out. I am allergic and like to read in bed and it was awful. So I bought a Kindle and never looked back. I sometimes feel bad, but mostly I am really happy with my Kindle. I don't have to wait to get a book, I don't have to manage stacks of books, etc. I know Amazon is EVIL and yet...
posted by agatha_magatha at 8:15 AM on August 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

+1 to apparently! My husband is desperately afraid of getting bedbugs and has decided he'd rather just buy tons of books for the kids than risk it with the public library. Luckily we have a couple local indie bookstores we're happy to support, and room in our budget, but it strikes me as embarrassingly extravagant to buy so many books when the library is right there.
posted by potrzebie at 8:21 AM on August 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

This fear was encouraged by book sellers. I have owned a couple of cheap popular literature hardcovers that were printed before 1930 which included a page in the back recommending readers should buy their own books as it was much safer that taking books out of the library. The advertisement suggested that the first thing that people do when someone becomes bedridden is go to the library to take out books to amuse the invalid and that the families of the invalids were the primary users of libraries.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:56 AM on August 25, 2019 [8 favorites]

Well, sometimes there really are germs. I was working at a large used bookstore when that article went briefly viral and my coworkers and I were even more grossed out by our rapidly rotating stock of 50 Shades - and we were already pretty grossed out. Honestly, some books you should just keep and not sell back to the bookstore. Please.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:01 AM on August 25, 2019

This was a fascinating article. i have been reading a library book today which has... crumbs in it? I hope they are crumbs, I really hope they are.
posted by jessamyn at 10:10 AM on August 25, 2019

Ever since I checked out a copy of The Complete Claudine with some pages suspiciously stuck together and stained, it has been all about Overdrive for me.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:11 AM on August 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

What I fear from library books: missing pages near the end of the book.
posted by srboisvert at 10:19 AM on August 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

One fun thing to do with library books is to open them allowing them to open at the page they open to most easily. This is often the page that they have been opened to the most often, or which has been held open most firmly, or a page that the book was left open at, face down. Sometimes it is a random page, but more often than not it is a page that someone found particularly interesting. And that means that there is a strong change that a library book will flip open to the page that reveals the best, or the worst part of the book.

For a romance novel it's often the ILY payoff scene, the scene where he admits his unwilling attraction, or proposes marriage. For action and thriller books it's often the most gruesome or exciting part - the torture scene or the finding the body scene or the rescue. Non-fiction books are the best though - you get a glimpse of what some earlier reader found most fascinating - the fact that the AB blood type gives you a significant resistance to cholera and a significant vulnerability to malaria, or the night the Rhine froze and the German Tribes crossed into the Roman Empire, or question of why so many Medieval archers left skeletal remains with a groove on one of their back teeth, or the only doll dress pattern in the entire book, or the French vocabulary for computer components and peripherals and to Mrs. Vandertamp and how to understand the weather report in French, or... well, it's different for every book and not every book falls open to a specific page or to a few specific pages. But when a book does, you can often figure out why.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:01 AM on August 25, 2019 [14 favorites]

I think that often when we talk about fear of germs, it's a semi-coded way to talk about fear of people
I agree. And I think one of the more common modern-day versions of this fear of contamination concerns public transit and the belief that buses and subway cars are full of exotic diseases. If I sit where a poor person sat, I might contract whatever it is that makes poor people contemptible.

I actually feel a special fondness for old, beaten up library books whose pages are covered in underlining and stains of mysterious provenance. Before the book reached me, it was in someone else's life, sharing their coffee or their wine.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 11:28 AM on August 25, 2019 [8 favorites]

I found a book scorpion in a book once. It was a tiny little guy with tiny little scorpion claws, so I went to the card catalogue & looked up "book scorpion", and there it was.
posted by sneebler at 5:21 PM on August 25, 2019 [8 favorites]

one of the more common modern-day versions of this fear of contamination concerns public transit and the belief that buses and subway cars are full of exotic diseases.

to be fair (and i say this as someone who has relied on public transit all my life), you do get a fair number of, uh, bodily fluids. i would assume actually contracting anything is virtually impossible, but the vectors are occasionally there. it's much easier to identify a visibly-wet book than a visibly-wet seat or a freshly sneezed-on subway pole, though, and it's rare that library turnover would be quick enough to allow for much in the way of transmission. the one exception to this might actually be kids' books, since patrons of a tender age do love putting all things, books included, in their mouths. were an outbreak of norovirus going around, i might think twice before borrowing kids' books, given how long it can live on surfaces and how easy it is to transmit. but short of a raging outbreak of specifically noro, even kids' books should be fine.
posted by halation at 10:46 PM on August 25, 2019

Reading a popular history of smallpox (I think this one), the author was spending some time in the archives researching it. Opening up a book which had been in the archives for over a century, an obviously very old envelope falls out. Author opens it up and finds - smallpox scabs. At the time the book was written, people did put scabs from the reaction to smallpox innoculation in the post, as they could be used to innoculate others. Author did not get smallpox, which probably demonstrates that books are at least fairly hostile environments for disease.
posted by Vortisaur at 2:48 AM on August 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

It's not mentioned here, but there were people in the American South raising the specter of communicable disease well into the 1940s and 1950s as yet another bullshit reason to justify racially segregated libraries.
posted by Hypatia at 4:31 AM on August 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

There are... some books that go beyond mere toxicity of content.
posted by delfin at 7:29 AM on August 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Totally vomited on at least one library book as a kid, though mercifully it was closed and cleanable.

Pretty sure I paid my karmic debt for that with a dozen years working in libraries (and Florida libraries are an entomological marvel, for sure.)
posted by asperity at 12:52 PM on August 26, 2019

As a library employee, I worry less about catching something from the books and more about the obviously sick children whose parents will blithely inform me, "Oh, she's sick today and had to stay home from school so we decided to come here!"

Please do not do this thing.
posted by darchildre at 2:16 PM on August 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

I certainly have opened older books that have TB warnings on them, as in if TB is present in the house the book should not be returned to the library.

I'm certain I took a photo of it, but it was a few years back. The book itself was considerably older than that!
posted by Fence at 10:00 AM on August 28, 2019

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