Library Books Were Once Blamed for Spreading Deadly Diseases

izzy71/iStock via Getty Images
izzy71/iStock via Getty Images

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.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Poike/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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J.K. Rowling to Release New Children’s Book The Ickabog for Free Online

J.K. Rowling is helping kids (and adults) pass the time in quarantine with a story about a mysterious creature called the Ickabog.
J.K. Rowling is helping kids (and adults) pass the time in quarantine with a story about a mysterious creature called the Ickabog.
John Phillips/Getty Images

In the middle of writing Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling began work on a new book called The Ickabog, which she read to her children in installments as a bedtime story and planned to release once Harry Potter was behind her. Instead, she ended up taking a well-earned hiatus from publishing children’s books that lasted more than a decade.

Today, however, Rowling announced that not only will she publish The Ickabog, but she’s doing it for free as a serialized novel online. The first two chapters have already been posted on The Ickabog website, and you can look forward to a new section each weekday between now and July 10, 2020. The story, which isn’t related to Harry Potter or the Wizarding World, takes place in the fictional kingdom of Cornucopia, where King Fred the Fearless rules with his best friends, Lords Spittleworth and Flapoon, by his side. There, a young boy named Bert Beamish is terrified by the legend of the Ickabog, a mysterious, malevolent creature that allegedly snatches up unsuspecting children all over the countryside. According to Rowling, the story is about “truth and the abuse of power,” and it’s best suited for children up to age 9.

This November, the book will be published in print, e-book, and audiobook formats, and Rowling will donate all author royalties to as-yet-unspecified “groups who’ve been particularly impacted by the pandemic.” She’s also asking readers to enter their illustrations of the story in a competition for a chance to be featured in the print edition this fall. Suggestions of what images the publishers might need for each chapter are listed on the website—the first two chapters, for example, call for pictures of King Fred and his friends, the Ickabog, a map and flag of Cornucopia, Lady Eslanda, and pastries, cheese, sausages, and wine—but it’s made clear that “nobody should feel constrained by these ideas.”

You can find out more about The Ickabog, read the story, and enter the illustration competition here.