Just How Gross Are Library Books, Exactly?

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Nobody wants to think about what might be crawling or oozing around between the pages of their paperbacks. Nobody but you, apparently—thanks for clicking!

The truth is that library book grossness is a pretty subjective concept, albeit one that scientists have been trying to measure for a long, long time. A 1911 article in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association titled “The Disinfection of Books” noted,

Books seem well adapted for carrying small-pox, measles, scarlet fever, trachoma, diphtheria, erysipelas, dysentery, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Yet so far as I have been able to find, no satisfactory method for the disinfection of books is being used anywhere in this country. Books are a particular diversion of invalids and convalescents, therefore they are in much danger of becoming infected. 

Besides the danger of contamination in these ways and in the ordinary handling of a book, many people persist in the uncleanly habit of moistening their fingers in their mouths when turning the leaves.

The article’s author, one L.B. Nice, reported that his colleagues in book-grossness research had attempted to quantify the disease risks buried in library books. One dedicated scientist took “much used books” from a public library and “cut out the dirtiest parts.” (For science.) He soaked the pages in saline, centrifuged the liquid, and injected the dirty book water into guinea pigs. 

The guinea pigs didn’t do so well. Over the course of several nasty experiments, dozens of treated guinea pigs died of tuberculosis, sepsis, and streptococcus (strep) infections.

But here’s the thing: Unless you’re stuck in some sort of weird literary torture chamber, nobody is ever going to inject you with library book juice. And modern scientists say that just curling up with a book is not enough to make you sick.

“I have never heard of anyone catching anything from a library book,” infectious disease specialist Michael Z. David told the Wall Street Journal. David says that viruses and bacteria can indeed live on the pages of library books, but that the risk of actual infection is very, very low.

Make no mistake, though: Those books are ripe with some pretty unpleasant substances. A 2013 test of popular books at Belgium's Antwerp Public Library turned up traces of cocaine and herpes. (To be fair, Antwerp is, apparently, a pretty big drug trafficking hub, but that still doesn’t explain the virus.) But once again, these substances were detected in minuscule amounts, definitely not enough to get you high or give you herpes.

And then there are the bedbugs. In 2012, library patrons across the country began reporting bedbug sightings in books and reading-room furniture. But don’t tear up your library card just yet. The scourge seems to be under control, for one thing. And even if your book does have a few beasties in it, there are ways to prevent them from coming inside. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, pesticide specialist Alicia Leytem recommended transporting your library books in a cloth bag, and then running the bag through a hot dryer for a half-hour when you get home. “That will kill any bugs or eggs,” she said.

Leytem does this for a living, so you can feel pretty confident when she says it’s safe to keep checking out your favorites. “My favorite place to read is in bed,” she told the WSJ.

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December 29, 2015 - 2:00am
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