Sick Books -- Beware The Slithy Toves, Fungus And Cockroaches

Release Date: August 6, 1998 This content is archived.


This year's El Niño weather patterns call for a heads-up to librarians and library users -- as well as homeowners with personal book collections -- about library damage and toxicity caused by floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and fire.

Kathleen Delaney, assistant librarian in the University at Buffalo Archives, is researching library disaster preparedness. She said infectious or irritating residue can cause noxious reactions in library users and workers -- even the occasional hallucination. The residue may come from:

accidental tripping of the sprinkler system.

"The ergot fungus is one of the freakier fungi to infect libraries and, like the others, can spread through a collection before it's noticed. Ergot spores can cause dizziness, nausea and even hallucinations in those handling contaminated materials." [Noted British mycologist R. J. Hay recently advanced the possibility that "many great literary figures may have been 'inspire'" by inhaling spores from moldy books."]

"No one knows how much quality library time is required to get high or nauseated -- there's been no research on the hallucinogenic effects of old books."

Recently, while cataloging the UB Archives' Love Canal collection, Delaney developed an allergic rash all over her arms, courtesy of 20 years of chemical interaction between printers' ink and paper.

"Cockroaches, one of the disease-vectors that thrive in dark, moist areas, are the most troublesome of the common library pests and they're very hard to eliminate. They consume all sorts of paper and binding materials, especially those containing pastes and glues, and can survive by eating other dead insects, including one another."

• Have a written disaster preparedness plan: "Librarians work very hard to save their collections before and after disasters strike but written disaster preparedness plans usually ensure that threatened collections are evacuated in time to prevent such damage."

• Freeze 'em: "Wet books and documents should be packed out to freezers within 48 hours to kill bacteria and prevent mold, mildew and insect infestation. When an entire community is under water or fire-damaged, however, commercial freezers aren't readily available for emergency use and refrigerated trucks may not have ready access either."

• Help from other communities: "Contact lists are a big part of a good disaster preparedness plan. Librarians from undamaged towns and regions often assist with cleanup efforts."

• Early-warning system: "Examine materials when they are received by the library and every time they are checked in and out for signs of damage from bugs and moisture. Under no circumstances allow food to be consumed in the library, and encourage patrons to bring spills, dampness and other problems to your attention immediately."

• Never house important collections 1) in the basement of a building, which tends to be damp and whose walls can cave in during floods. The basement also houses pipes that can burst, and 2) on the bottom shelves of the stacks, or on the top shelves where they are most vulnerable to flooding, sprinkler damage and burst pipes. Store them so water can cascade over the shelves without hitting the books.

Delaney can be reached during working hours (EST) at 716-645-2916.

Media Contact Information

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