By: Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services ProQuest Books
Plans were being laid for the Main Branch of the New York Public Library long before the Fifth Avenue home of the iconic Literary Lions opened in 1911. “When the reservoir is removed from Bryant Park and in its place is a splendid library, there will be a free lending department,” the New-York Tribune reported in 1897. “Public library authorities have been for some time considering how the dangers inevitably resulting from circulating volumes in every part of the city may be avoided,” the Tribune continued, in an era when library lending was not universal and, especially for the crowded urban poor, risk of communicable disease high. “The question resolved itself into an inquiry as to whether a satisfactory disinfectant could be found.”
NYPL’s director at the time was Dr. John Shaw Billings, former head of the Army Surgeon General’s library. Billings experimented by first infecting books “with a choice assortment of bacteria,” making them “full of germs of measles, scarlet fever, smallpox and other diseases.” Then trying a series of “germ destroying substances,” eventually Billings found “a perfect disinfectant in the gas formaldehyde.” Books would be placed for an hour or two in a glass or metal box with a saucer of solution, until “the vapor has penetrated into every particle of the book and not a live germ can be found.” Years before opening, then, Billings was ready to lend books safely. “Patrons of the institution may ease their minds,” the Tribune went on, “of any fear that the volumes they borrow may bring the dreaded germs of diphtheria or typhoid fever into their houses.”
By the time of the 1918 flu pandemic, however, despite this work, disease-carrying books were again considered a danger. In October, New York’s Health Department asked NYPL to halt the circulation of books. “Circulation of books in the public libraries of the country has fallen off greatly since they were closed by the health authorities during the influenza epidemic,” reported Brooklyn’s Daily Standard Union, in November. City Librarian Frank P. Hill tried reassuring Brooklyn readers that books were safe. “The medical fraternity of the United States say that books do not carry disease,” Hill said, “and that a germ getting between the leaves of a book and deprived of light and air dies in a few minutes.” But readers were widely unconvinced. “Scores of books in the Toronto public library are being destroyed by order of the medical health department,” recorded the Ottawa Citizen in 1919. “The condemned books have been in the homes of persons who are stated to be suffering from communicable diseases.”
As the influenza subsided, most fears passed. Still, the U.S. Public Health Service felt the need in 1920 to address readers:
It is so hard to find a record of an authentic case where a book has been responsible for the carrying of a disease that most students of public health incline to the opinion that books play little, if any, part in the spread of infection….The ordinary germs that may be deposited on a book would live only a short while, often a question of a few hours, at the most.
Now it’s a hundred years later. Even setting aside the germs, let’s face it, books have always been a problem for librarians. (Print books, that is—ebooks, for another day.) When you buy them, it’s through a micro-transaction with enough moving parts to get complicated. When the books come in (which they don’t always), you need to cut open the boxes and packages, get rid of the cardboard, put the books on carts, close out your transaction, and make sure the books are stamped, labeled, cataloged, and protected to the point staff can roll them out to the shelves. Meanwhile, as patrons retire or leave town or run out of space, they’re donating books to the library (its own set of problems). Finally, after years of buying and being gifted, you’re out of space too.
The shelves are so full it’s difficult to put books back where they belong when borrowers return them (which they don’t always). You can “weed” to avoid a day of reckoning, but the work to separate the books that circulate (which they don’t always, often at a dismaying rate of non-use) from the ones to discard, equals the work it took to buy the books in the first place. Your “deaccessioning” project could get you in hot water with faculty in any case, unless handled with discretion. So, it’s all too easy to put off this stage in the cycle of book life. If put off too long, though, you may need a new wing for the building, no easy ask these days. If your collection is enormous enough, you could aim for a storage facility. No simple ask either, but here there’s the chance to preside over a campus marvel, for visitors to watch from a viewing area as your book-retrieving robot goes about its work behind glass.
Of course, only a tiny number of libraries can hope for this sort of triumph. Every single library there is, on the other hand, will need to have systems and staff to check books out, check them back in, re-shelve them and attempt to keep good shelf order, prevent books from being stolen, and deal with those which end up mis-shelved, lost, worn, or damaged.
Then, every century or so—like right now—on top of all this the books become a public health problem, too. All’s fine for the moment, since everyone’s closed. But once re-opened, what to do? For print books being returned to a library, I’ve seen recommended isolation periods of 24 hours, of 72 hours, of 14 days. This week my own public library in Nashville, splitting the difference, announced that books will be set aside for five days after return. Staff handling returns will need gloves, and they will be able to consult published guidelines for “glove etiquette”. “Our library will be the remote storage facility,” one librarian said to me recently, not entirely as a joke. Even if that’s putting it a bit strongly, many librarians, some already providing a measure of curbside or backdoor service, are talking about “click and collect,” print books accessible only by request—our own day thereby echoing the era of John Shaw Billings not only with book disinfection measures, but with closed stacks too.
Since April or before, patrons will largely have done without, without print books from their library at least. Teaching went online universally and left print behind. Meanwhile, use of ebooks and other electronic resources shot up. Upon returning to their workplace, staff at many libraries will face book shipments held by vendors for months, and the need to unbox, receive, and process stacks of books headed for shelves where they will remain, for the immediate future, mostly undisturbed; and if used at all, will be retrieved under special procedures by staff who, for all we know today, will also be tasked with taking temperatures and monitoring social distance for patrons allowed inside the building.
“I’d like to know, what will happen with print?” another librarian wondered about the coming academic year. So would we all. It’s news to nobody that the budgets ahead for libraries will be difficult ones, with librarians forced to give all books a very hard look. One way librarians have been able to keep up declining but still substantial levels of print buying has been to streamline and outsource the work of selecting, ordering, and processing books, relying on services from companies who have become as much architects of custom book-buying infrastructure as they are booksellers. These companies have grafted together print and ebooks into what’s a single “bookselling” business in name alone, a business with a pair of distinct internal architectures. What it takes to run an ebook business, as compared to a business based on print books, would be something like a comparison between a university’s music library and business library. Sure, some of what they do is the same—but go see what happens if you ask the music and business librarians to change places.
“They miss print,” is what another librarian told me, referring to a patron survey the library had just completed, a survey confirming what The Guardian had found in May:
Libraries are currently closed all around the world, and, while demand for ebook loans is booming, there’s far more to a library than just borrowing books. There’s the hallowed sense of being surrounded by learning, the peaceful community of being around other readers and the pervasive smell of books.
Well, maybe a bit romantic there, since those learning commons so recently so crowded weren’t all that peaceful and the “readers” weren’t always reading. But we get the point. Books do have a smell. Chemists, in fact, have analyzed the “old book smell” (not sure if they’ve sniffed the new books). Library patrons, some of them, certainly miss the print books. Depending upon their area of study, they may absolutely need them too. These patrons miss finding and gathering up books, choosing the promising ones, stuffing them into backpacks, making a pile at home to work through, handling the books, sizing them up, skimming, sometimes reading a book or part of a book, even writing in its pages. Books have been written, in fact, about what readers have written in books.
Librarians know all this. During our lockdown, they’ve mailed books to patrons, have placed online orders for shipment to patrons’ home addresses, have scanned books when they could, have found substitutes when they were able to. With all the space they take, all the handling they need, all the other things wrong with them, and with the rise of ebooks, the biggest problem with print books, for libraries, is that too many readers still want them.