The Threat of Contagion

In American military hospitals, patients were separated into wards by type of illness. Psychiatric and TB patients had their own wards, and other troops were grouped by injury type or disease. Librarians inspecting military hospitals at home and abroad noted that each hospital had its own way of dealing with the fear of contagious books. “It was here, . . . that an ingenious plan had been conceived to care for the books in the contagious wards,” noted librarian Mary France Isom of her inspection of an American military hospital in Toul.  “A neat little white bookcase had been provided for each ward and to prevent the books from straying, each was marked with an appropriate color. A sinister band of yellow pasted across the binding denoted smallpox, there was red for scarlet fever, green for meningitis, a dainty blue for the less objectionable measles, and so on.” This system was based on a simple principle. Once a book entered a contagious disease ward, it never left. Special bindings helped to prevent cross contamination between wards.


At home, military hospitals, like the one in New Haven, Connecticut, drew on local public libraries to help fill patient requests. However, some public libraries refused to lend books to hospital libraries that served patients with TB or other contagious diseases. “Many public libraries are unwilling to lend their books to patients in the tuberculosis hospitals, either government or private,” Modern Hospital reported, “and the American Library Association is trying to remedy this by sending books from its tuberculosis hospital library.”


The belief in the power of books to spread disease endured throughout the war despite existing methods to disinfect books. Some librarians baked books in ovens to kill germs, and the most common method suggested by experts dictated a book be left in sunlight for 48 hours after contact with an infected reader before it  could be put back into circulation at a public library.

Jacques Boyer. “The Disinfection of School Books” Scientific American 101 (July 24, 1909): 60.

The idea of books posing a risk to health as a contagion held a metaphorical power as well. On July 31, 1918, the War Department issued the first of several lists of books it banned from the Library War Service. Censorship of pro-German and pacifist books met little pushback within the Library War Service, and represented the fear that books espousing dangerous ideas could pose to the health of the nation during war if contagious. Librarians noted books to be pulled from shipments to military libraries in their internal records, and offered specific reasons for their decisions in handwritten memos on the typescript lists.


Here are some examples from Library War Service records. The quotations represent handwritten comments that explain the necessity of censorship in each case:


Benson. Inviting War to America. 1916. “Arguments against preparedness coupled with personal attacks, bitter arguments against capitalism and propaganda for the socialist cause.”


Ernesta Drinker Bullitt. An Uncensored Diary from the Central Empires. Doubleday, 1917. “Have received one letter from a librarian protesting against this as pro-German.”


John Burgess. America’s Relations to the Great War. “Says the danger in this war is from the combination of the four great colonial empires and that they ‘will if hang together bring all the west into subjection.’”


J.K. McGuire. The King, the Kaiser & Irish Freedom. Devin Addir, 1915. “Written by an American who favors German cause – emphasizing G’s friendship for Ireland and what G. can do for Ireland.”


Pro-German views, pacifist arguments, and books that offered sympathy to the colonies seeking independence from America’s allies in the war all posed a danger if their ideas proved contagious to American servicemen and made them question the terms of their service.


Ironically, when American newspapers reported the censorship within the Library War Service, some critics responded by arguing that censorship itself was the more dangerous contagion to the health of the nation, not the contents of the so-called dangerous books. “The deadly censorship fever spreads more rapidly in war time than any other mental disease, and America is especially subject to it,” an editorial in the Detroit News noted. “In peace days our national literature was puritanized and mollycoddled practically out of existence by the Comstockery of the post office department and the public libraries,” the writer noted referencing earlier censorship laws. “Now the camp libraries are threatened by the same malady. It is more important that they be saved from it than that some notion of democracy be injected into the municipal libraries.” Censorship and forced patriotism would not inoculate the nation from the dangers of war, this editorial argued, they instead posed a threat to democracy.


The stakes of censoring reading among the troops during the war created questions about the terms of American democracy, and of freedom of speech. If World War I was fought to “make the world safe for democracy,” who would fight to keep the library safe for reading?


Librarians serving in the War Service were well- aware of the perceived notion that books could be contagious, both materially and metaphorically. They also knew first-hand that books held real therapeutic power which they were eager to harness and apply to their work in their own communities. Returning home, these librarians felt inspired to create a new “science” of bibliotherapy, transforming their library shelves into medicine cabinets to treat the patients under their care.


Continue with the exhibit.