The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 22, Number 35, September 1, 2019, Article 29


There are plenty of studies around that discuss substances, diseases and miscellaneous filth to be found on coins and banknotes, but if you want something else to be afraid of, Smithsonian magazine published an article on The Great Book Scare. Here's an excerpt - see the complete article online for more images and craziness. -Editor

The Great Book Scare 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.

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."

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."

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."

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.

To read the complete article, see:
When the Public Feared That Library Books Could Spread Deadly Diseases (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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