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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

BedBugs and Libraries

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, December 16, 2012

“Libraries bring bed bugs into your home” was the caption of the news story.


I thought to myself, “I will never hear the end of this from friends and library users,” but actually people have been kind about the subject and asked information-type questions.


Well, except for one fellow who insists that I must stomp as I walk to get rid of the bed bugs.


The recent news stories seem to have developed from a News Release involving the University of Washington Library that found bed bugs in their archive of architecture books and used a freezing process to rid their books of the critters.


That was picked up across the nation, emerging last week on the “Today Show,” the same folks that brought us the popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey” with their brief comments about the new book series that they were reading.


I have had 42 years of experience with critters in books returned to libraries, and can tell you it is a rare occurrence and not as traumatic to deal with as portrayed.


First, all of our libraries are treated monthly for various “critters” in case things are returned on our books, DVDs, or whatever.  This has been standard practice for at least the past 75 years based on paperwork from the 1930s.


Secondly, due to a lack of moisture, food, and heat, books are a poor place for any type of critter to take up permanent residence.  With today’s paper production methods using pulp paper, critters are less likely to declare a book home than a century ago when rag stock paper was used.


Usually, what we find in returned books is deceased critters that require books to be cleaned.  Notice that I am using “critters” to cover any aspect of bug.


Videocassettes provided a hiding place for critters, but again they didn’t stay as the plastic cases weren’t a favorite place.  Placement of the book or video in a sealed plastic bag addressed the problem until the residents were gone.


Libraries have used “the bookworm” as a mascot for years, denoting someone who likes books so much they are around them all the time.


The bookworm came from the 19th Century when books were made from rag content paper, and did attract worm-like critters eating through the paper and binding.  A that time, people carried books outside in various conveyances and protected them by wrapping waxed paper, which attracted moisture.


Today, it is recommended to place books or other library materials suspected of infestation to a plastic bag that can be tightly closed for a week or so.  Some people add a cotton ball with alcohol; other people freeze the item for a couple of weeks to insure success.


At the library, we sometimes receive books that have been damaged by being in water, and the moisture has attracted critters and mold and little can be done for those items and they are discarded.


Other items just need an exterior cleaning and mylar cover replacement to be ready for use again, but we never return anything to the collection that could contain damaging conditions.


In the 1930s, the United States experienced several outbreaks of disease, and often library books in those homes were ordered burned to stop the progression of the diseases.


By the 1940s, it was found that this was unnecessary as paper is a poor conductor of germs and the practice ended.


Many years ago, I worked with a wonderful librarian who had experienced all the rigors of librarianship, and her favorite line for a book returned to the library was, “Grief!  What did they do?  Use the book as a plate for eating their dinner?”


Yes, we have cleaned a lot of stuff from library books, and discarded some books that were beyond restoration in favor of a new copy.


But, technology has provided the answer to anyone worried about critters and books!


eBooks can’t be infested with anything since they exist in cyberspace.  So if the critter issue worries you, invest in an eReader and go to the virtual library that we provide and the problem is solved.


Hmm, wonder if there is a critter out there looking at a Kindle, wondering if he can squeeze into the crack in the back?