Can public library books harbor bacteria/virii/disease?
May 18, 2006 6:28 AM   Subscribe

Can public library books harbor bacteria/virii/disease?

The other day my wife expressed the sentiment that she doesn't use the public library as I do because she believes that public library books are "unclean" and can harbor disease.

While I don't believe this at all, I've been unable to find any information what so ever regarding the lifespan of various pathogens on say... book like materials. Common sense would indicate that short of long lifespan spores like anthrax very little could survive in a dry dusty book save for the occasional silverfish.

Am I wrong? Do books have the potential to be pathogen carriers?
posted by JFitzpatrick to Health & Fitness (20 answers total)
Sure, why not? Almost everything is a potential pathogen carrier.
posted by ChasFile at 6:30 AM on May 18, 2006

The word you want is 'fomites.'

The lifespan of various pathogens varies widely. Some viruses can barely survive for minutes outside a human, some fungal spores can survive indefinitely.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 6:32 AM on May 18, 2006

Pinworm eggs can survive 2-3 weeks, and are spread by scratching one's nether regions. Might be an issue with children's books in frequent rotation.
posted by zek at 6:36 AM on May 18, 2006

ChasFile - I realized potential is a broad word, but realistically I'm pretty sure nobody is getting herpes from library books.

Nucleo - Thanks for providing the relative keyword I needed for my searching... by using fomite and books as keywords in google I was able to actually turn up some research.

Books as potential carriers of Diphtherie:

Books as potential carriers of Molluscum:

I even found a blog of a librarian, who upon learning the meaning of the word fomite, contemplates her library being full of them:

All this knowledge from knowing the single defining word for what you are searching for. Yay metafilter.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 6:47 AM on May 18, 2006

MRSA (methicillin resistant staphoccocus aureus), which is particularly nasty (ask me about my experience with vancomycin!), can survive for 72 hours on non-living surfaces.
posted by plinth at 6:53 AM on May 18, 2006

read this first
By the 1950s and 1960s, the proliferation of public libraries had largely killed off private lending libraries, and the declining risk of infectious diseases and consequent public interest meant that the concept of books as transmitters of disease was no longer worthy of serious consideration.
There is nothing about books that makes them more condusive to airborne pathogens than any other public surface that people might sneeze on, touch, breathe on, or sit on. They're not warm, they're not moist, they're not generally in contact with food or anything that is particularly noxious human-bodywise, any more than anything else your wife would come in contact with in the public world. She's more at risk flying on an airplane or eating in a restaurant or going to the doctor than she is borrowing a library book. On the other hand older library books can sometimes fall prey to spores and molds which, while less likely to be spreading infection, can trigger allergies in people.

More reading: , About Microbes, public surface bacteria q&a

This doesn't ease your wife's concerns about unclean library books which at some level is probably as much about gut reactions than any actual data-based approach to the problem. This is not likely a debate that can be won just via getting the numbers for her if the books just feel dirty to her. It's a possibility vs. probability problem. Is it possible to get a disease? Sure. Is it likely? No, no it isn't.
posted by jessamyn at 7:05 AM on May 18, 2006

And some books harbor more than suface bacteria (from 2003):
Government health researchers plan to conduct tests next year on the contents of a yellowed envelope apparently filled with scabs from 19th-century smallpox vaccinations.

The scabs, found in a New Mexico university library, could shed light on the development of American smallpox vaccines, an official at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

There's also a slim chance, researchers say, that the scabs could yield live smallpox virus, which is believed to reside in only two laboratories in the world. Smallpox in the general public was eradicated a generation ago, but it is often mentioned as a potentially devastating biological weapon.
posted by griffey at 7:14 AM on May 18, 2006

Years ago I suffered an allergy attack from books purchased at a local library sale and stored in a bookcase in the bedroom. All were in seemingly new condition, except harbored dust mites. Wheezing, sneezing, tearing eyes...difficult few nights.

It isn't so much that there are no 'germs', but the risk is low. All activities involve some risks. Perhaps your wife is or has OCD tendencies?
posted by MD06 at 7:33 AM on May 18, 2006

They're not as dirty as money is. And I bet she touches that at least a few times a week.
posted by agregoli at 7:59 AM on May 18, 2006

I read lots of library books, and have wondered about this. I read an article that said that wood cutting boards retain fewer bacteria than plastic ones, though the reason for this was unknown. So, maybe paper is not a good vector.

Worry more about the keyboards on shared computers, in the library, hospital, doctor's office, etc. They're filthy. Wash your hands. Make sure your doctor washes her hands. Repeat as needed.
posted by theora55 at 8:22 AM on May 18, 2006

I alway spray wash the covers of my library books before reading them. I starting doing it after reading a biography of Howard Hughes but now do it more as a courtesy to the next guy- some of these books are filthy.
posted by any major dude at 8:32 AM on May 18, 2006

Spray wash them with what, exactly? As a former library worker, that worries me. If it's any kind of chemical, it could contribute to the break-down of the materials you do it to.
posted by agregoli at 8:58 AM on May 18, 2006

Thanks for all the great links.

My wife isn't OCD persay, as someone suggested, but comes from a family of people who are in my opinion, OCD (everytime they visit my house they unplug my #(%*ing toaster. Do you know how annoying it is to go make toast the next morning and stare at the toaster for 20 seconds trying to figure out why the carrier won't stay depressed?) So I think she picked up not their behaviors persay, but some of their silly beliefs about the world.

When we actually talked about it, she realized how stupid it was to be worried about getting sick from a library book... but like alot of childhood beliefs we get from our parents, unless we take them off the shelf and examine them in adulthood we might just end up stuck believing them.

I knew I could ask metafilter and get lots of good information.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 9:40 AM on May 18, 2006

I'm a public librarian, and I almost never get sick, if that helps at all.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:24 AM on May 18, 2006

I work in a public library also. I get sent all the nastiest books to decide whether to clean, bill, or discard them. I rarely get sick either.
posted by savehomie at 10:36 AM on May 18, 2006

Since this has been answered, would you mind a librarian story?

The first director I worked for had a patron who always asked how all the books were disinfected every night. This annoyed the staff, since he found it incomprehensible that the library staff didn't spend their nights lysoling the books.

One day, my director (then the jr. children's librarian) was senior staff, and had to take a call from him. When he started in on disinfecting the library books, she interrupted him to ask if he was using a public pay phone. He was. She then commented on all the germs on the mouthpieces of public phones.

She heard the phone hit the side of the booth a few times, and they never heard from him again.

She had the best stories. Once she was serenaded in the children's room by a Hungarian refugee playing violin.

Now, children's picture books...those go some nasty places...
posted by QIbHom at 3:35 PM on May 18, 2006

I have fairly serious respiratory problems (allergies, asthma, etc.) and have learned to avoid library/used books that are more than 10 years old. Whether it's mold or dust mites or whatever--old books give me a headache!
posted by Carol Anne at 6:28 AM on May 19, 2006

Agregoli, I used windex and only clean the ones that have the protective plastic covers
posted by any major dude at 7:47 AM on May 19, 2006

Seems like a major waste of time and of possible damage to the books.
posted by agregoli at 8:40 AM on May 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

a "major" waste of time? It takes 20 seconds and if it keeps my hands from sticking to the book I find it well worth it.
posted by any major dude at 2:32 PM on May 22, 2006

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