How Do Libraries Clean Books? And More Questions From Our Readers

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Fumigation was used on library book collections in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when book-borrowing was seen as a possible disease vector. Illustration by Fatinha Ramos

Q: I read in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book that libraries fumigated books for public health reasons. Do they still do that?

Carol Frank | Los Angeles

That practice was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when book-borrowing was seen as a possible disease vector. Today, collections use nonchemical methods, like freezing, to treat mold and insect infestations. The observation that the coronavirus can survive on paper and cardboard for up to one day is leading libraries to disinfect nonporous surfaces and quarantine recently circulated materials for 24 hours, says Vanessa Haight Smith, the head of the Smithsonian Libraries’ Preservation Services Department.

Q: Given the science of plate tectonics, can we predict what the continents will look like in, say, 100 million years?

Claire Bugos | Chicago

Scientists are actually able to predict even further out—to about 250 million years. Although a tectonic plate moves very gradually, at about the rate a fingernail grows, and the movements of the various plates are complex, scientists can still estimate how those vast pieces of the Earth’s crust will rearrange, explains Ed Venzke, a volcanologist at the National Museum of Natural History. For example, in 50 million years, Africa will move so far north that the Mediterranean Sea will disappear, and 100 million years in the future, Europe, Asia and Australia will all be stuck together. Christopher Scotese at the Paleomap Project has predicted the formation of Pangaea Proxima, a supercontinent that will be created when a combined North and South America eventually collide with Africa.

Q: Did painters living during the 1918 influenza pandemic portray the experience?

Chase Carter | Washington, D.C.

Some, but not many, documented their personal experiences with influenza: In 1918, the Austrian artist Egon Schiele sketched his wife, Edith, and his mentor Gustav Klimt, both of whom succumbed to the flu. Schiele died from it soon after. In 1919, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch created self-portraits during his illness and after his recovery. Robyn Asleson, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, says the American artist John Singer Sargent was painting a mural in Europe when he came down with the flu. The 62-year-old recuperated in a French military tent, which he rendered in his 1918 watercolor The Interior of a Hospital Tent. He wrote of “the accompaniment of groans of wounded, and the chokings and coughing of gassed men, which was a nightmare. It always seemed strange on opening one’s eyes to see the level cots and the dimly lit long tent looking so calm, when one was dozing in pandemonium.”

Q: Why aren’t clouds affected by gravity?

Mike Ellis | Charleston, Missouri

The water or ice particles that make up clouds are too small—they’re measured in microns (one-thousandth of a millimeter)—to fall at any significant speed, so they can stay up in rising or turbulent air. But, says Ross Irwin, geologist and chair of the National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, if the clouds acquire too much moisture, then raindrops form and fall out. Clouds also tend to grow in upward-moving air. The updrafts in the atmosphere help counteract the downward velocity of the particles and keep the clouds afloat.

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