Home » Blog » When not to return a library book

When not to return a library book

Beware of books bearing illnesses.

I recently read Hindenburg: the wooden titan, John Wheeler-Bennet’s biography of the presidency of the man who ushered Hitler into power. It’s an interesting book, written just after Hindenburg’s death and so before the second world war and the realisation of exactly what had been brought forth. You can also find contemporary book reviews online which are likewise fascinating in what they don’t know. It really brings home AJP Taylor’s comment (in The struggle for mastery in Europe) that that hardest thing about the study of history to to remember that events now long in the past once lay in the future.

What was unexpectedly fascinating was the bookplate in the front of the volume I borrowed from the university library, which was published in 1937. (I think it’s a first edition.) The top half is fairly standard, but the bottom part describes something you wouldn’t expect to find in a library book:

“A person shall not return any public library book which he knows to have been exposed to infection from a notifiable disease … [including] smallpox, cholera, diphtheria, …”

And so on. The list of diseases includes things against which we are now routinely vaccinated (diphtheria, tuberculosis), those we haven’t seen in the UK in my lifetime (typhus), and those most people would now brush-off with a course of antibiotics (flu, pneumonia). Except, of course, that at the time there was far less vaccination and no antibiotics at all, since mass production didn’t start until the 1940’s.

So as well as being an observation of a period in history from a point in time from which its significance was only poorly understood, this book is a time capsule from a period when diseases were a lot bigger and broader threat than they are now.


Leave a comment