UW News

December 13, 2012

Giving library pests the cold shoulder

UW Libraries

Bedbugs reveal a taste for literature, turning up in library books, the New York Times reported Dec. 5 in an article headlined “A dark and itchy night.”

“Bedbugs have discovered a new way to hitchhike in and out of beds: library books. It turns out that tiny bedbugs and their eggs can hide in the spines of hardcover books. The bugs crawl out at night to feed, find a new home in a headboard, and soon readers are enjoying not only plot twists but post-bite welts,” the article said.

UW Libraries was among the libraries mentioned in the article as having spotted bedbugs this year on returned books.

UW librarian Stephanie Lamson stands in doorway

Stephanie Lamson, preservation librarian, eliminated bedbugs and possible progeny by subjecting them to successive treatments of extreme cold.U of Washington

In August, UW circulation staff noticed dark spots and, upon closer examination, insects near the spine of some returned books. Following procedure, the staff sealed the books in plastic bags and called Environmental Health and Safety, which identified the insects as bedbugs.

The pests were on fewer than ten volumes within the UW’s collection of over 7million books, said Stephanie Lamson, preservation librarian and someone who regularly deals with pests and other threats to libraries collections.

“Above all, people should not be afraid of libraries,” she said. “Bedbugs are much more likely to be encountered in hotels, homes and apartments where they have easy access to sleeping humans – the food source they need to survive.”

After the pests were discovered, the books and bedbugs were kept in sealed plastic bags and placed in a freezer at -18 F (-27 C). Bedbugs, according to lab research, are killed by direct exposure to temperatures  of 3 F (-16 C) for one hour. UW Libraries, however, adopted an even more  careful approach, both to preserve the library materials and to ensure the elimination of bedbugs.  The books were frozen for seven days, thawed within their sealed boxes for six days, and frozen again for seven days.

Freezing is a typical method used by museums to kill pest and insects. “Freezing is preferable to heat in this case, as heat can accelerate the aging of books and paper,” Lamson said.

As a precaution, a bedbug-sniffing dog was brought in to make sure there were no signs of bedbugs in affected areas.  The dog found no evidence and there have not been any further reports of bedbugs since August.

After the freeze, the books were inspected, and re-bound in some cases, then returned to the collection once they were confirmed to be pest-free. As an additional precaution, some of the most affected books were discarded and replaced.

How did the bugs get into the hollow of the book spine?

“Bedbugs are attracted to dark, tight places,” said Lamson. “Most likely the library patron had a significant number of bedbugs in his or her residence, and the bedbugs migrated to the book.”

The libraries has posted a Q and A about last August discovery. Librarians ask library users who notice insects in library materials, or who know library materials have been exposed to pests, to put the items in a plastic bag, seal the bag, and contact library staff.  Do not return these items to book drops.