A few years ago, I took Fifty Shades Of Grey out of the library (I didn't just buy in on Kindle like a normal person). Only after getting the volume home and flipping through its folded and stained pages did I start to wondered about the germs in library books. When you try to picture all the hands that these shared books come into contact with over their long life, it's safe to assume the paper is a veritable garden of bacteria. So if you're trying to concentrate on the words on the page, not the germs on the page, just how dirty are these reads?
Would I have checked Fifty Shades out if I had known about the 2013 test of popular books in Belgium's Antwerp Public Library? Fifty Shades turned up positive for traces of both cocaine and herpes. Herpes! The other books tested, which included a children's book and some thrillers, also tested positive for cocaine. Does that mean our American versions of Fifty Shades are crawling with drugs and germs? Not necessarily — Antwerp is the second largest city in Belgium, and its lovely seaport makes it an ideal for lots of drug trafficking. Thankfully, the levels of contamination found on the book covers were not enough to get you high or give you a cold sore.
Worrying about the dangers of library book contamination is nothing new. Over a century ago, a 1911 article titled “The Disinfection of Books”, fanned the flames of hystria. Author L.B. Nice wrote in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, "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." Sorry invalids, time to look for a new hobby. Perhaps counting ceiling tiles would be safer?
Nice also warned that people could contract and spread disease through books with the "uncleanly habit of moistening their fingers in their mouths when turning the leaves." To prove the theory, one scientist cut out the dirtiest parts of well-used library books, mixed the paper with a saline solution, centrifuged the liquid, and injected it into guinea pigs. Many of those poor guinea pigs died of strep, tuberculosis, and sepsis.
But as any adult will tell their two-year-old — books are for reading, not eating. And I guarantee that no librarian would recommend making yourself a grimy book water cocktail. And the issue of book contamination isn't just isolated to libraries. A 1994 study found bacteria on books belonging to libraries and family households alike. However, they were both deemed safe as neither was "a potential source of transmission."
While you are not putting yourself at risk of infection by taking out a library book, we might not be entirely in the clear. In 2012 people started to report sightings of bedbugs in library furniture across the country. Pesticide specialist Alicia Leytem informed the Wall Street Journal, that there is an easy solution for those concerned. She recommends bringing the library books home in a cloth bag, and putting the bag in a hot dryer for a half-hour which "will kill any bugs or eggs.” L.B. Nice, essentially recommended the same thing in 1911, touting steam and "dry hot air" as handy ways to kill any buggies and bacteria in the books. Even so, I might save myself the hassle and just buy the book on tape of Fifty Shades Darker.
Keep calm and read on!