Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Letter from the Director: June 2020

Dr. David Ware,
state historian and director

In 1879, a board member of the Chicago Public Library posed a question for the Library’s director: Could library books spread contagious disease? The librarian, F. W. Poole, did not know, but he was a seasoned professional: He admitted as such but resolved to find out. There was nothing in the scant literature concerning contagion to guide him, so he addressed queries to leading medical authorities —doctors and professors — of the day. Some respondents dismissed the idea as ludicrous, but a large number — the cautious majority — opined that while transmission via library books was highly unlikely, the theoretical possibility could not be ruled out. Several suggested elaborate ways of disinfecting library materials, involving combinations of sulphuric acid gas, steam and dry heat.  

Over the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th, a small number of researchers continued to grapple with the question of library books and infectious diseases. In 1896, French researchers soaked books used in hospital wards in bouillon, pulverized them, then added them to culture media. Solutions made from the resulting cultures successfully infected cattle with strep, pneumonia and diphtheria—although typhoid fever and tuberculosis resisted this strenuous method. To guard against this, the French boffins recommended disinfection of books either with formaldehyde (a colorless, toxic and, possibly carcinogenic gas, used chiefly in aqueous solution as a disinfectant and preservative) or by autoclaving — that is, steam cooking books under high pressure, with unfortunate effects on bindings and paper alike. 
Such efforts continued, sporadically, until the middle of the last century. Despite a daunting lack of documented cases of library or archival materials transmitting disease, the fact that such transmission could not be completely disproved inspired a few hardy souls to continue looking for evidence that books could be killers. As late as 1950, a British hospital librarian insisted the threat might still be real —but few, probably, paid much attention. 

As we prepared to reopen the Arkansas State Archives last month, my colleagues and I had patron safety — as well as our own! —in mind as we worked out protocols for the Archives’ operation while in the shadow of the novel coronavirus. The most effective tools are masks, hand cleaning, surface disinfection and keeping a generous distance between one another; we have rearranged research rooms at each facility to make this as easy as possible. Complimentary masks and hand sanitizer are in ample supply. Stanchions and sneeze guards provide easy reminders of how to keep our respective distances. For the time being, we are asking patrons to make reservations in advance of visiting the Archives because our research rooms have a limited carrying capacity. As conditions change outside our facilities, we will adjust the rules to suit what we hope will be improvements on the Covid-19 front. 

But what, you might ask, about books, papers, microfilm and other materials? Evidence suggests that the coronavirus does not live long on books and paper, but we’re taking no chances: We will leave all patron-requested materials unshelved for at least 24 hours before returning them to their usual resting places. Patrons using them are required to wear masks and to cover archival documents with a clear polyester shield. Taken together, these simple precautions will ensure that the matter of Arkansas, our documentary heritage, will remain both safe and safe for all to use. 

And we promise: No fumigation with sulphuric acid gas. Or formaldehyde. Or autoclave.