In September 12, 1895, a Nebraskan named Jessie Allan died of tuberculosis. Such deaths were a common occurrence at the turn of the 20th century, but Allan’s case of “consumption” reportedly came from an unusual source.
She was a librarian at the Omaha Public Library, and thanks to a common fear of the time, people worried that Allan’s terminal illness may have come from a book.
“The death of Miss Jessie Allan is doubly sad because of the excellent reputation which her work won for her and the pleasant affection which all librarians who knew her had come to feel for her, and because her death has given rise to a fresh discussion as to the possibility of infection from contagious diseases through library books,” the Library Journal, published by the American Librarians Association, wrote in October of 1895.Allan’s death occurred during what is sometimes called the “great book scare.”
This scare, now mostly forgotten, was a frantic panic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that contaminated books—particularly ones lent out from libraries—could spread deadly diseases. The panic sprung from “the public understanding of the causes of diseases as germs,” says Annika Mann, a professor at Arizona State University and author of Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print.
Librarians worried that Allan’s death, which became a focal point of the scare, would dissuade people from borrowing books and lead to a decline in support for public libraries. “Possibly there is some danger from this source; since the bacillus was discovered danger is found to lurk in places hitherto unsuspected,” the Library Journal continues. “But the greater danger, perhaps, comes in over-estimating this source of danger and frightening people into a nervous condition.”
Concerns about spreading disease through the lending of books would have serious impacts on the proliferation and growth of libraries. At a time when support for public libraries was growing nationwide, book-lending institutions faced a major challenge from the disease scare.
Illness was rife in this period in both Britain and the United States. Epidemics including “tuberculosis, smallpox and scarlet fever” were taking “a fearful toll in urban areas,” according to scholar Gerald S. Greenberg’s 1988 article “Books as Disease Carriers, 1880-1920.” For a populace that was already on edge about fatal diseases, the idea of contaminated library books passing from hand to hand became a significant source of anxiety.