The sinister history of fumigating “foreign” books.
By Brian Michael Murphy, Wednesday, August 24, 2022
In late spring 1928 librarians in the rare book collections at the Huntington Library in Southern California noticed that something was feasting on the volumes in their care. Rail and utilities titan Henry E. Huntington had established the library in 1920, spending a small fortune to gobble up a number of the largest and finest rare book collections in a relatively short time, and creating a truly priceless set of artifacts.
Though Huntington died in 1927, he intended his collection to live on long after him, but as the librarians discovered, the volumes were literally too full of life. The problem with assembling a massive collection of books is that you necessarily collect the very organisms that feed on books.
Variously known as Anobium paniceum, the bread beetle, or the drugstore beetle, bookworms had been known to eat their way through “druggists’ supplies,” from “insipid gluten wafers to such acrid substances as wormwood,” from cardamom and anise to “the deadly aconite and belladonna,” wrote the librarian Thomas Marion Iiams, who led the preservation effort at the Huntington Library. He noted in an account of his struggles in Library Quarterly that the bookworm displays a “universal disrespect for almost everything, including arsenic and lead.” Iiams was new to the librarian profession and was certain that more experienced overseers of fine collections would have a solution to his bookworm problem.
In haste, Iiams wrote letters to much older libraries and repositories—the Huntington itself was only eight years old—to learn precisely how they rid their precious books of the pest. He was alarmed to find that no one, not librarians at the Vatican nor at the oldest libraries in Britain, could offer a definitive prescription for how to protect books against the hardy insect. A number of the librarians he consulted thought bookworms to be a myth, and thus offered no help at all.