Beacon Street Diary blog

What's Eating You?

The books and manuscripts in the library’s collection are informative, yes, but are they also delicious? It depends on who you ask. While staff are highly discouraged from engaging in bibliophagy no matter how tasty that 18th century sermon looks, there are a number of creatures that lack the same restraint.

Many people are surprised to learn that bookworms ‘bookworm’ isn’t just a metaphor, even though the most common paper eaters aren’t actually worms. They leave behind tell-tale tunnels wending their way through a text block like those pictured above (18th c. record book of First Church Charlestown), sometimes from end to end or they leave tiny holes in covers and spines. Most often, they are the larvae of a variety of beetles, moths or cockroaches who are attracted to the adhesives, leather, cloth and other organic material commonly used in book production. Some pests, like carpenter ants or furniture beetles will infest wooden shelves and then move on to the books they find there. Booklice eat molds and other fungi that can begin to grow on books and manuscripts kept in warm damp conditions. Silverfish will eat around the perimeter of pieces of paper, leaving jagged edges behind. Mice will gnaw on paper and boxes to keep their teeth sharp or shred it for their nests.

It is practically a rite of passage to reach into a newly acquired box of material and pull out some manner of creepy crawly--I have personally been accosted by silverfish, spiders, and once, a very large moth. Don’t let the cute face above fool you; the damage that bookworms and other collection-eating pests leave behind can be devastating. Bookworm tracks and tunnels can leave text unreadable and significantly weaken the integrity of paper and bindings and cannot be repaired. The best way to prevent damage from bookworms and other pests is to make our collections less hospitable. In addition to thoroughly inspecting new acquisitions for any unwanted stowaways, all of our materials are kept in a climate-controlled environment that keeps things cool and dry. Materials that arrive to us with significant damage are placed in custom housing to provide an extra layer of protection. Fortunately, book production methods have changed, so material from the 20th century and beyond are less at risk.Our ultimate goal is to make sure that when we say our materials are ‘being devoured’ it remains strictly a metaphor.