Friday, March 25, 2011

Contagious Diseases and Library Books



In looking through my postal librariana collection for my previous post related to New York Public Library branch librarians, I came across a postal card (circa late 1930s) used by NYPL to contact library users who had checked out books and a contagious disease in their home.  Not too long ago a friend, knowing my interest in postal artifacts, called my attention to a blog post about disinfected mail.  These two occurrences prompted me to take a look at the topic of library books and the potential spread of contagious diseases.  As it turns out the discussion of this potential dates back to at least 1879 when W. F. Poole, Librarian of the Chicago Public Library, wrote about this topic in Library Journal. In 1891 at the ALA Conference in San Francisco a paper was presented by Gardner Maynard Jones, Librarian of the Salem Public Library (MA) titled "Contagious Diseases and Public Libraries". In their investigations both Poole and Jones found little evidence that contagious disease could be spread through library books. Jones, however, indicates that it is the responsibility of librarians to take reasonable precaution and to prohibit the circulation of books to houses with contagious disease. And further, that books returned from such houses should be disinfected or destroyed. This approach appears to have been adopted by a number of public libraries including the New York Public Library.

Bob Sink on his NYPL Librarians blog has expanded this story considerably as it relates to the New York Public Library.

5 comments:

Christine H. said...

Fascinating. When I followed the link to the disinfected mail, I saw that they perforated the letters in order to disinfect them. I wonder what they did with the books.

Bob Sink said...

NYPL did work with the New York City Department of Health to prevent the spread of disease by destroying books from households with infectious diseases, even if they did not really present a threat to other users. Dating the post card to the late 1930s is significant since the policy was finally ended in 1938 at the suggestion of the Health Commissioner.

Exile Bibliophile said...

I do own a book from a WWI US Army camp library stamped "Burn After Quarantine" in the back cover. Great read!

Julia said...

This is really interesting! I ran across some similar information in looking at Iowa library records--there were some measures in place regarding contagious diseases that called for some health official to examine the books (and sometimes they were destroyed.) I was expecting to see more of that during the Influenza pandemic in 1918, but most libraries closed for a period instead (likely saving many books!) When things calm down a bit I hope to write a paper based on those records, although it might end up as a blog post instead!

Anonymous said...

This is a bit late, but I found a mention of this in a the Sage Library (Bay City, Mich.) and their board meetings. "On motion, books loaned to families where contagious diseases existed, were ordered destroyed."