People have fallen for much more outlandish beliefs than this one. In fact, there’s a site online called Snopes.com that made its reputation by debunking all the false and misleading stories that circulate, occasionally by word of mouth but predominantly on the internet. But did you know—can you believe—there was a time when people believed you could catch all manner of diseases, including some deadly ones, by borrowing books from the library!
Yes, people really believed that!
“The great book scare” started with the death of a Nebraska librarian just before the turn of the twentieth century. Miss Jessie Allan died of TB—tuberculosis—in 1895, which is hardly an amazing fact unto itself. TB, and deaths from TB, were common over 100 years ago. But the rumor began spreading that Jessie might have caught her illness from handling a book that had been previously on loan to an infected borrower. And if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.
Suddenly, borrowing library books was viewed as downright dangerous! Library books could be hazardous to your health—lethal, even.
That’s how these scares start—even today. And this one turned into a full-blown panic. It evolved to indict not only library books but ALL books that had been handled by other people. But library books were the main culprit. After all, there was no knowing how many people, or who, had handled the books, or even worse, coughed upon the pages, or what diseases they carried—or were spreading. And, after all, that was what (presumably) had led to the death of Miss Jessie Allan.
At the height of the book scare, dust was the suspected carrier. By now, people understood that germs were what caused disease. It stood to reason, they assumed, that if infected people had both touched the books and breathed or coughed on them, and thus proliferated their germs, dust arising from the books could readily spread those germs to anyone inhaling—that is, breathing normally—near the books.
Thus, you wouldn’t even have to BORROW a library book. Merely VISITING a library was hazardous enough—although actually taking books home, reading them, and—of course—breathing while reading could even more readily expose you to such diseases as TB, smallpox, or scarlet fever.
In 1879, a Chicago librarian, one W.F. Poole, having been asked if books could transmit disease, consulted several doctors who each claimed to know of this actually being a valid theory. The scare worsened.
It had spread to Britain, which passed a law stating, “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.” In the U.S., similarly aimed legislation was taken up by some states. In some areas, librarians became pariahs.
Libraries were directed to disinfect suspect books. Various methods were employed in this effort. In New York, steam was used, while in Pennsylvania, the agent was a formaldehyde solution. In some cases, books were burned.
Puritanical interests joined the cause, reviling libraries because they provided access to books these individuals and groups viewed as obscene or subversive. In this case, the spread of disease was not their foremost concern, but railing against libraries served their purpose.
Eventually the panic subsided, but not all at once. In 1913, a Virginia newspaper was still propagating the misinformation that “public library books may scatter scarlet fever.”
Misinformation dies hard. Fortunately, as hardy as it is, libraries are even hardier. If you come down with the flu tomorrow, don’t blame it on that book you borrowed!