The Great Book Scare and the Anxieties of Public Spaces

If you went to the library as a kid, you probably remember the smears of suspicious substances you’d find every once in a while trapped between the pages of a well-thumbed book. And if you continued going to the library after that, you probably didn’t worry too much about the potential grave health risks library books posed. But, those living at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century saw library books in a different light. For many, library books had the potential to transmit some of the most infectious diseases circulating in society at the time.

As outlined by Smithsonian Magazine, fears of infection from public books at the time were encouraged by testimony from a few vocal librarians, the statements of some shady scientists, and a good amount of sensational hearsay. All of these played on basic fears about the diseases that were so pervasive in society at the time. As a result, many library-goers began to fear that the books they were reading might pass on the diseases harbored by those who handled the tomes before them. Whether that be through book dust or pages dirtied through infected touch.

As a result of the public sentiment on the issue, various public bodies moved to promote or even make mandatory the disinfecting of books. Legislation in the UK outlawed infected people from book lending, and libraries all over the US were expected to take measures to sterilize or remove from circulation books which were deemed risky. Coverage by newspapers exacerbated the fears, and it reached such a point that in certain locations, books were burned and circulation ceased to prevent the spread of diseases.

Eventually, things calmed down, and lending returned to normal. Further attempts to raise the issue were defeated by librarians who recognized that this fear was unfounded. In fact, this fear might have purposely played up by those who were against the educating, liberating nature of free, uncensored reading material.

The “great book scare” as researchers have come to call it serves as an excellent example of how public fears and misinformation can lead to situations in which important institutions are threatened and undermined: a vital historical lesson for our times.

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