Saturday, March 26, 2011

DISEASED BOOKS


Yesterday, Larry Nix at Library History Buff posted an entry displaying a post card from the 96th Street Branch asking a reader to return a book since there had been infectious disease in the household.  The Library knew this because the NYC Department of Health had alerted it to this fact.

Destroying or fumigating so-called diseased books had been Library practice for some time.  I have seen a note that the Webster Free Library (serving the Czech community on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) destroyed a book checked out by a user with diphtheria in 1895.

Dr. John Shaw Billings, a medical doctor who served as the first Director of NYPL, was also concerned about the problem of diseased books.  In 1901, just a few months after NYPL had absorbed the NY Free Circulating Library to create the branch library system, Billings informed Melvil Dewey about his experiments on disinfecting books and described the box he had created to accomplish this. [See NYPL Archives, Billings Records, Library Matters Letterbook #21]

Despite Billings experiment, the Library was ambivalent about the reality of diseased books.  In May 1913, just two months after Billings died, his successor, Edwin H. Anderson, wrote privately to Mary E. Ahern (editor of Public Libraries) complaining that the NY Telegram “one of the yellowest evening papers” had printed the lie “about blood poisoning from books” and asked her help in refuting these types of stories. [See: NYPL Archives, Billings Records, Box 15]

Nonetheless, even in those years, the NYC Department of Health was sending the Library a list of households with contagious diseases (especially scarlet fever and diphtheria).  When books were returned from those households, they were held until picked up by the Department of Health and destroyed.  In 1916 that resulted in the loss of about 1500 volumes. 

In 1938 a new Health Commissioner finally proposed ending this practice as being unnecessary.  Although worried about the public’s reaction, the Library agreed after the Branch Librarians said they did not think the public would object.

For more on the profession’s approach to this topic see Gerald Greenberg “Books as Disease Carriers” in Libraries and Culture 23 (Summer 1988), 281-294.

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