When the Public Feared That Library Books Could Spread Deadly Diseases

“The great book scare” created a panic that you could catch an infection just by lending from the library

Dusty Book
At the height of the book scare, news outlets reported that dust from library books could spread infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox and scarlet fever. kevron2001 / iStock

On September 12, 1895, a Nebraskan named Jessie Allan died of tuberculosis. Such deaths were a common occurrence at the turn of the 20th century, but Allan’s case of “consumption” reportedly came from an unusual source. She was a librarian at the Omaha Public Library, and thanks to a common fear of the time, people worried that Allan’s terminal illness may have come from a book.

“The death of Miss Jessie Allan is doubly sad because of the excellent reputation which her work won for her and the pleasant affection which all librarians who knew her had come to feel for her, and because her death has given rise to a fresh discussion as to the possibility of infection from contagious diseases through library books,” the Library Journal, published by the American Library Association, wrote in October of 1895.

Allan’s death occurred during what is sometimes called the “great book scare.” This scare, now mostly forgotten, was a frantic panic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that contaminated books—particularly ones lent out from libraries—could spread deadly diseases. The panic sprung from “the public understanding of the causes of diseases as germs,” says Annika Mann, a professor at Arizona State University and author of Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print.

Librarians worried that Allan’s death, which became a focal point of the scare, would dissuade people from borrowing books and lead to a decline in support for public libraries.

“Possibly there is some danger from this source; since the bacillus was discovered danger is found to lurk in places hitherto unsuspected,” the Library Journal continues. “But the greater danger, perhaps, comes in over-estimating this source of danger and frightening people into a nervous condition.”

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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.

Illness was rife in this period in both Britain and the United States. Epidemics including “tuberculosis, smallpox and scarlet fever” were taking “a fearful toll in urban areas,” according to scholar Gerald S. Greenberg’s 1988 article “Books as Disease Carriers, 1880-1920.” For a populace that was already on edge about fatal diseases, the idea of contaminated library books passing from hand to hand became a significant source of anxiety.

Omaha Public Library
The original Omaha Public Library building, built in 1891 by architect Thomas Kimball. Ammodramus via Wikicommons under CC0 1.0

Books were viewed as possible vehicles of disease transmission for several reasons. At a time when public libraries were relatively new, it was easy to worry about who had last handled a book and whether they might have been ill. Books that appeared to be benign might conceal diseases that could be unleashed “in the act of opening them,” Mann says. People were concerned about health conditions caused by “inhaling book dust,” Greenberg writes, and the possibility of “contracting cancer by coming in contact with malignant tissue expectorated upon the pages.”

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.

A wave of legislation in the United Kingdom sought to attack the problem. Although the Public Health Act of 1875 didn’t refer specifically to library books, it did prohibit lending “bedding clothing rags or other things” that had been exposed to infection. The law was updated in 1907 with explicit reference to the dangers of spreading disease via book lending, and those suspected of having an infectious disease were forbidden to borrow, lend or return library books, with fines of up to 40 shillings for such crimes, equivalent to roughly $200 today.

“If any person knows that he is suffering from an infectious disease he shall not take any book or use or cause any book to be taken for his use from any public or circulating library,” states Section 59 of Britain's Public Health Acts Amendments Act of 1907.

In the United States, legislation to prevent the spread of epidemics through book lending was left to the states. Across the nation, anxieties were “localized around the institution of the library” and “around the book,” Mann says. Librarians were victimized among the growing scare.

In response to the panic, libraries were expected to disinfect books suspected of carrying diseases. Numerous methods were used for disinfecting books, including holding the books in vapor from “carbolic acid crystals heated in an oven” in Sheffield, England, and sterilization via “formaldehyde solution” in Pennsylvania, according to Greenberg. In New York, books were disinfected with steam. A study in Dresden, Germany, “revealed that soiled book pages rubbed with wet fingers yielded many microbes.”

Reading Room NY Library
The main reading room of the New York Public Library, circa 1910 - 1920. The library's main branch was opened to the public on May 23, 1911. Public Domain

An eccentric experimenter named William R. Reinick was concerned about multiple supposed illnesses and deaths from books. To test the danger of contracting disease, Greenberg writes, he exposed 40 guinea pigs to pages from contaminated books. According to Reinick, all 40 of his test subjects died. Elsewhere, experiments involved giving monkeys a drink of milk on a platter of ostensibly contaminated literature, as Mann writes in Reading Contagion.

All these experiments may have been extremely unusual, but they ultimately came to similar conclusions: However slight the risk of infection from a book might be, it couldn’t be completely discounted.

* * *

Newspapers also referred to the dangers of disease-spreading books. An early reference in the Chicago Daily Tribune from June 29, 1879, mentions that the chance of contracting diseases from library books is “very small” but could not be ruled out entirely. The November 12, 1886, edition of the Perrysburg Journal in Ohio lists “books” as one of the items to be removed from the rooms of the sick. Eight days later, another Ohio newspaper, The Ohio Democrat, outright declared, “The disease [scarlet fever] has been spread by circulating libraries; picture books having been taken therefrom to amuse the patient, and returned without being disinfected.”

As newspapers continued to cover the topic, “the fear intensified,” Mann says, leading to “extreme phobia about the book.”

By 1900, pressure was starting to mount. In January, Scranton, Pennsylvania, ordered libraries to halt book distribution to prevent the spread of scarlet fever, according to Greenberg. The use of chemicals to sterilize books became more common, even though such practices were also thought to harm the books. But as bad as sterilization was, a worse tactic loomed on the horizon: The Western Massachusetts Library Club recommended that books suspected of carrying diseases “should be burned and not returned to the library.”

In Britain as well as the United States, books were incinerated to prevent the spread of disease. Recommendations from doctors that contaminated books be burnt were even featured in the Library Journal, Mann writes in Reading Contagion.

Chicago Water Tower Reading Room
The original public library in Chicago, a book room constructed inside an old iron water tower, opened to the public on New Year's Day, 1873. Public Domain

After much tribulation, reason eventually took hold. People began to question whether infection via books was a serious threat or simply an idea that has been spread through public fears. After all, librarians were not reporting higher illness rates as compared to other occupations, according to Greenberg. Librarians began to address the panic directly, “trying to defend the institution,” Mann says, their attitude characterized by “a lack of fear.”

In New York, political attempts during the spring of 1914 to have books disinfected en masse were roundly defeated after objections from the New York Public Library and a threat of “citywide protest.” Elsewhere, the panic began to subside as well. Books that were previously thought to have been infected were lent again without further issue. In Britain, experiment after experiment by doctors and hygiene professors reported next to no chance of contracting a disease from a book. The panic was coming to an end.

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.

Even as the panic subsided, the idea that books could spread disease lingered for some time. As late as February 21, 1913, the Highland Recorder newspaper in Virginia stated that “public library books may scatter scarlet fever.” As late as the 1940s, Greenberg writes, medical professionals “in Britain, America and even Japan” were still debating whether books could unleash dormant diseases onto the public.

The perceived danger of public access to reading material, it seems, can take as much of a physical as an intellectual form.

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