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How Libraries Are Dealing With Bedbugs

Anna Gooding-Call

Staff Writer

Anna Gooding-Call is a librarian and writer originally from rural central New York. She got her BA in the city that inspired "The Twilight Zone" and confirms that the hitchhikers really are weird there. Today, she lives in Massachusetts with her wife and two cats.

In August 2012, a patron at the Wichita Public Library was bitten by a bedbug. A flurry of activity followed: the library called pest control, delved into chemical remediation, and endured a media storm. Since then, bedbugs have been discovered at several public libraries. The experiences of the Wichita Public Library and Collection Development Manager Sarah Kittrell have guided panicked branch managers and department heads ever since. There is one simple fact that libraries need to know about bedbugs: not only can they turn up anywhere, but increasingly, they do. The discoveries of bedbugs in public libraries are becoming routine, if unwelcome, events. How that discovery goes for your library is entirely a matter of preparation, training, and levelheadedness.

Bedbugs? Really?

Bedbugs in public libraries are extraordinarily common. You may even have personal experience with them and not know it. According to entomologist Kenneth Haynes of the University of Kentucky, 30% of people don’t react to bed bug bites. That means that people are tracking bedbugs with them into schools, onto buses and trains, and—yes—into public libraries, all unawares.

Pesticide use has accelerated bedbug evolution. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, pesticides tend to kill only the weakest 90% of bedbugs. The remaining tough 10% goes on to breed tough babies who inherit their parents’ resistance to poisonous chemicals. To make a long story short, our advanced modern society has done more to generate super-bedbugs in 50 years than Mother Earth has managed to do in millions.

As a result, bedbugs have experienced a resurgence. They often inhabit hotel rooms where they can hitch a ride to exciting new places in luggage and clothing. That’s why almost anyone can have this problem, regardless of cleanliness or lifestyle, and why libraries might find themselves with a bug problem too.

What’s the problem?

Since people don’t necessarily know if they have bedbugs, they may not know to treat their stuff. This is how patrons track bedbugs into libraries, where they establish a toehold by feeding on people who enjoy soft chairs and other plushy furniture. Bedbugs like itty-bitty spaces, so they can end up in book spines, too. It doesn’t take a lot for bedbugs to thrive in a library. Even if they only encounter a few people a day, they’ll make it work. They’ve even been known to live happily in cinemas.

Library bedbug cases can blossom from there without the involvement of a patron. Interlibrary loan can constitute a vector for bedbug transmission. One pregnant female bed bug can generate a population of over 700,000 of the little pests within six months. Returning an infected book in an overnight drop can be disastrous.

Bedbugs in public libraries aren’t trying to hang out in books, of course. There’s no food for them there. But bedbugs can also live for months without feeding. Certain home scientists (viz me) have taken it upon themselves to capture bedbugs in jars and patiently wait for them to die. The result: bored bedbugs, and in one case, a rash of healthy, hungry baby bedbugs. Furthermore, there’s no need for a bedbug to restrict its diet to human blood alone. Labs regularly nurture them on mice.

Finding Bugs

It should come as no surprise that bedbugs also drive patrons away from libraries. Cautionary measures seem to help calm patron fears, but in a big system like Cincinnati, New York City, or San Francisco, bedbug contact is only a matter of time. In 2012, Cincinnati’s 41 libraries owned 48 PackTite decontamination bags, which exist just to destroy bedbug stowaways. Other libraries visually check every book as it comes in.

A visual inspection of a book can be very revealing. In keeping with the recommendations of Sarah Kittrell, libraries nationwide now train staff to notice bedbug sign. This includes fecal stains on the edges and pages, squashed bugs inside the book, and live insects in the spine and dust jacket.

There have been cases where bedbugs fall directly out of a returned book and onto the library’s circulation desk. This, in some ways, is ideal. The returning patron can be confronted in situ with live or recently-live evidence of their guilt. We’ll talk more about bedbug policy, and what happens to that patron after discovery, a little later.

Lucky you! You found a bedbug!

But books, as we’ve already noted, aren’t great bedbug habitats. That honor falls to library furniture, especially the cushy, overstuffed chairs that are so popular in reading rooms, teen rooms, and reference areas. Examining these can be trickier. Every fold and crevice in the fabric must be examined for signs of insect activity. Even stuffed toys in children’s areas can house bedbugs.

A UV light can be useful in this circumstance because it identifies the leavings of biological matter. Librarians might even inspect prophylactically, especially if they’ve previously had problems. Those who have know the drill. Airtight tubs, latex gloves, and a magnifying glass are all critical first-line equipment. Sarah Kittrell says that library staff members tend to start itching three minutes into her bedbug talk, but it’s important work: a well-trained staff is key to controlling outbreaks. If only they taught this in library school.

There are also, believe it or not, bedbug-sniffing dogs. Wichita Public Library used them itself after the initial fateful contact between patron and bug. In their case, they brought the dog in before and after treatment, just to make sure that they were bedbug-free.

As icky as finding bedbugs in public libraries can be, it’s a good day when staff identifies the problem. Then, library administration can handle it without the scandal of a bitten patron. Theoretically, leadership could accomplish this quietly, although even the luxury of being able to get out ahead of the news, as did the library of Alma, Michigan, is valuable. Whether that’s the best choice depends on the particular situation of the library in question, but disclosing bedbug treatments, even prophylactic ones, seems like a good decision for a publicly funded institution. Woe betide the library whose patrons find the bugs first.

What happens then?

After identifying bedbug activity, library administrators have a few options. One in particular is quite necessary, even emergent: quarantine. Buggy books are bagged and, if possible, heat-treated on the spot. Since some bedbug exposure areas can be limited to just a few stacks, or even a single book, this patch can be fairly effective. If the afflicted book was discovered in a book drop, however, damage control will include tracking-down of every book returned that day. If the returned book belongs to or came from a different institution, the librarian in charge is then tasked with placing one of the most distasteful phone calls necessary in a public service career.

Fumigation, heat, and cold are options for books with bedbugs, but some are better than others. Heat tends to age books, even when it’s relatively low. (Bedbugs of all life stages and all bedbug eggs die after one minute in 122-degree heat.) Fumigation is effective, but less so than it has been in the past due to the bugs’ ability to evolve resistance. The chemicals we now need to use to destroy bedbugs are so toxic that librarians may balk at lending that material again. Cold is a preferred method because it does no harm to books. But if the bedbug population is localized or the book badly stained by feces or carcasses, the library might simply opt to replace.

The cost of eradicating bedbugs in public libraries depends on the particular library where a population of bedbugs turns up. A big building can make a difference, as can the number of bedbugs or the types of furniture that the library owns. Sarah Kittrell tells Book Riot that, since the initial bedbug finding in 2012, her library has included bedbug treatments, including bedbug-sniffing dogs, in Wichita’s pest control budget.

Couches, Chairs, and Other Softies

Moving afflicted furniture is a bad idea, although it might be the first reaction of a librarian confronted with an incriminatory red welt. Moving an infected chair can cause it to shed more bedbugs, which will immediately scamper off to breed elsewhere in the library. Doing so in front of patrons is a particularly bad idea. Imagine the effect of a panicky librarian dragging a chair out of the building as bedbugs cascade out of its upholstery and skitter into the stacks.

Instead, furniture needs to be isolated and addressed by a pest professional. In fact, it’ll probably need to be tossed, and the building thoroughly treated. Bedbugs occasionally venture into walls, under carpets, and into other itty-bitty spaces that don’t lend themselves well to inspection. Overkill is both sound pest control philosophy and good PR. A library that assumes a population explosion of a million bedbugs when it has discovered a hundred is in good shape.

Preparing for the Inevitable

Kittrell acknowledges that preparation is key. Even libraries that haven’t yet encountered bedbugs may, at some point, find themselves tested. “The key for libraries is to stop bed bugs at the circulation counter or book drop,” she explained to Book Riot, “so that items with pest issues do not reach the shelves.”

Increasingly, libraries take this wisdom to heart. With pesticide resistance ever increasing, the day when bedbugs are immune to every pesticide is on the horizon. At that point, cases of bedbugs in libraries—and, indeed, everywhere—may become inevitable. With these insects’ uncanny ability to inbreed successfully, every egg-laying female is a potential population explosion. Heading them off at the circ desk isn’t just the best policy, but potentially the only one that will work in a brave new bedbug-ridden world.

Preparing means policies. As with porn use and books featuring mysterious wetness, bedbugs now get library rules and procedures. Wichita pioneered the bedbug policy at a 2015 Public Librarian Association presentation that has become the go-to for librarians who find a bug. “The best defense, in my opinion, is a well-trained staff,” Sarah Kittrell says, and libraries nationwide seem to agree. Many city libraries now cook their books to get rid of bedbugs. Unlike pesticides, heat treatments won’t prompt the bugs to evolve because none of them survive the process. Many also take prophylactic action by putting bedbug cups beneath chair legs and training staff to check every book.

But even a vigilant staff and watertight rules can only snuff out an infection locally. After each treatment bugs can—and often do—simply walk back through the door with the same patron. At this point, things get awkward.

Breaking The Terrible Cycle

Bedbug exposure is more than just gross for librarians or a minor—if scratchy—inconvenience for patrons. It’s potentially a legal issue and definitely a problem once the news gets hold of it. But when the infection is coming from a patron, librarians are faced with the miserable task of having to tell someone that they have bedbugs.

But before the director picks up the phone, the patron has to be quarantined as thoroughly as the buggy books. This means shutting down their borrowing privileges, sometimes for a set amount of time, and rifling back through their records to see what other materials might have come into contact with their bugs.

Bedbugs are an affliction of moneyed, traveling classes. Hotels and colleges are infamous bedbug hubs. You can get them from movie theater seats. Bedbugs appear in five-star hotels and hotel cases are on the rise. Bedbugs are bad luck, plain and simple, and they can happen to anybody.

But insect stigma is powerful. Nobody wants to admit that they have a case of “dirty” bedbugs. Approaching patrons who have returned bedbug-ridden books is a delicate matter that can involve tears, shouting, accusations, denials, and shame. Preventing reinfection may involve banning the patron for enough time, so it’s quite important to have enough evidence before confronting the issue. Policies may include suspension of borrowing privileges, suspension of all library privileges, or even a contingency of use based on a clean bill of health.

Librarians vs Bedbugs in Public Libraries

Bedbugs evolve fast. The course of one human lifetime is an epoch to a bedbug. Over those bug-eons, the survivors of bedbugdom will absolutely live in some human’s habitat. It is what they do. Half of the problem of managing bedbugs in libraries is a matter of accepting that bedbugs are, in their own sense, as noble as any creature that adapts to a dangerous way of life. It is a chance to humbly reflect upon the majesty of nature writ small in these intrepid creatures who thrive through all peril.

And then, of course, kill the little bastards with fire.

Looking for fictional bugs? Book Riot has you covered! Also, learn a little more about the heroic scientists who contribute to our knowledge of insects right over here.