Dangerous Libraries

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During Banned Books Week which occurs in September since 1982, librarians routinely prepare a list of books whose contents are considered by some to be so controversial that the books are banned from libraries, schools, communities, and even countries. It is scary when books, the repository of much of our knowledge and deemed by most to be fun, educational or classics, are deemed subversive and contaminating.

Throughout the history of books, challenges to their contents have been frequent. But, interestingly, a book scare in the 19th and early 20th century was prompted not by content, but by another factor, a book’s physicality. At a time when public libraries were opening throughout the United States (the Kent Memorial Library opened in 1899), diseases were also rampant. Smallpox, scarlet fever and tuberculosis prowled the country. Schools were frequently closed, meetings were canceled. My own father entered first grade late, because of the fear of disease.

A prime suspect in the proliferation of the diseases were books, particularly library books. It was believed that books could harbor a disease that existed in the previous reader, and when opened, would unleash the foul book dust into unsuspecting lungs. In Great Britain, a law was enacted in 1907, fining people suspected of having an infectious disease from borrowing, lending or returning library books. The imposed fine was equivalent to $200 today. States enacted legislation as hysteria mounted. Newspapers shrilled headlines. Doctors warned of dangers. Books were burned. Librarians fumigated books by various methods – holding the books in vapor made from carbolic acid crystals or formaldehyde solutions.

Even after it was demonstrated that books did not infect people, the belief persisted. My mother was warned by a Suffield doctor that library books were dirty and could potentially harm me, an avid reader.

Before reason prevailed around 1915, libraries and librarians were often vilified. According to a September 23, 2019 article on Smithsonian.com, opponents of public libraries, people who distrusted the institutions because they feared circulation of subversive or obscene literature, fostered the “book dust disease” argument to undercut support for libraries.

This desire to censor the free distribution of materials continues today in the censorship of books and the filtering of the internet on public computers. Filtering is being considered today by some in Suffield. Yet, filtering technology is not recommended by the American Library Association. It is both patronizing to adults and deprives library users of access to material they may legitimately seek to research. Moreover, studies have documented that filters fail to block many sites they seek to target while still blocking hundreds of thousands of perfectly legal, useful sites. 

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