The opening of Colne’s first free public library in 1895 represented a new risk to the health of the readers of the town. Borrowing a book was a kind of lucky dip and could lead to illness and maybe, just maybe, death. This sounds a strange possibility to us today – we would probably struggle to guess at what the problem was. How could books, a library, be a threat to public health ?
In a sense, it was the contents of the books that posed the threat, but not the words on the page. Colne’s Medical Officer of Health at the time explained his concerns in his report of 1896:
Imagine how that would work today: go to GP, find out you’ve got something nasty; GP, as well as working how to treat you, contacts the local library; librarian works out what books you’ve had out, tracks them down and sends them off to be sterilised………..
If we ever saw the return of diseases as contagious as those in Colne in the 1890’s, such as cholera or typhoid, then that’s probably what would need to happen, among a thousand and one other things to try and contain things.
We see from the MOH’s additional point that, interestingly, there were other, private lending libraries in the town at this time, unregulated in terms of pubic health. I wonder upon what basis these operated. There are no such libraries listed in the trade directories for the period. Perhaps they were operated by the various booksellers there were or by some of the town’s general stores (of which they were many).
Source: Medical Officer of Health report 1896 (Lancashire Archives reference MBCO Accession 9281)