For many people, vising their local library and picking up a book knowing it’s gone through several other hands can be a source of amazement. But for a skittish public in the 1890s, there was a nagging fear that handling a borrowed book could infect them with smallpox, scarlet fever, or tuberculosis. The pleasure of owning a library card became an exercise in terror.
In a fantastic article recently posted on Smithsonian, writer Joseph Hayes chronicles an extended bout of hysteria related to lending libraries in the United States and abroad. With news accounts of a Nebraskan librarian’s death from tuberculosis in 1895 being attributed to her handling of books, the public grew concerned that volumes could be contaminated by people harboring infectious diseases. While it seems as though this concern should be valid for other things repeatedly handled by the public—like doorknobs, for example—library books were singled out for their seeming ability to trap germs in pages that could then spring out when the book was opened. People were also fretful that someone with a fatal illness could cough onto the paper, expectorating tiny bits of germ-harboring tissue.
Physicians did little to dampen the concern, proclaiming either no knowledge of whether books could transmit disease or plainly stating that it was possible. In the UK, the Public Health Act of 1875, which limited the sharing of contaminated items like bedding, was expanded in 1907 to include library books, with people known to carry disease prohibited from handling titles available to the general public.
While paranoia was largely to blame for this bizarre belief, the panic actually aided conservative observers who feared certain books were salacious enough to corrupt the moral fabric. That libraries were being ostracized and books sat on shelves unread played into their objectives, and they attempted to reinforce the idea books were potential contagions whenever possible.
Libraries began to experiment with methods for sterilizing books, including steam or formaldehyde solutions. It took years before the public panic subsided and no massive outbreaks of disease as a result of book borrowing materialized. Modern medicine has determined that, while book pages could conceivably harbor disease, the risk of infection from handling them is extremely low.
Today’s libraries still clean books. At the Boston Public Library, for example, books go through what amounts to a tiny car wash on a conveyor belt, though it’s not to sterilize them. It’s simply to remove dust from pages.