December 12, 2012

“Bedbugs in libraries” story backlash, or why to listen to entomologists


Where there is a “bedbug infestation in libraries” New York Ttimes article, there shall also be a bedbug hysteria rebuttal article, and other universal laws …

When the New York Times ran a story on December 5th about bedbugs traveling into homes via library books, readers got pretty worked up about it (MobyLives covered the early reactions here). The public library, generally considered the last refuge for civilization, where all are welcome, where the emphasis is on the genteel checking in and checking out of things, a temple for elevated thoughts, free computer usage, and story hours, now turned out to be just another hot zone full of hairy, bloodsucking monsters ready to hop a ride home in your copy of The Casual Vacancy.

Unless of course, the acclaimed NYT Home & Garden section was exaggerating things a bit. Or entirely. Edward Champion over at the blog Reluctant Habits has gone back to the sources that the Times reporter Catherine St. Louis originally interviewed and discovered the source of the problem is not bedbugs … but the media:

Bedbugs are not the major threat that Saint Louis suggests they are. In fact, some of the library directors who Saint Louis spoke with have never had a bedbug epidemic at all. They were merely taking preventive measures in the wake of recent media stories.

“We actually never had an infestation,” said Mary Schubart by telephone on Wednesday evening. Schubart, the library director of the Islip Public Library, was described in the article as taking action against bedbugs “after reading about their alarming resurgence…I saw the media going crazy a year or two ago.”

We cannot, alas, bake, freeze, or send sniffer dogs after the media. But a good start on the whole context thing might be to listen to the professors who know about this stuff: Champion learned that though St. Louis had a three hour conversation with Michael Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, she only quoted one sentence, “There’s no question in the past few years there are more and more reports of bedbugs showing up in libraries,” though what Potter was talking about specifically, a survey entitled “2011 Bugs Without Borders” (which Reluctant Habits kindly links to for your horrified perusal), demonstrates that:

while, on the whole, bedbug incidents have increased, the threat within libraries is well behind hotels, motels, college dorms, nursing homes, office buildings, public transportation, and movie theaters.

As is often the case in these types of pieces, the real gold is in the comments section. Take it away, David Cain, voice of reason or possibly not:

A collector of odd bedbug artifacts? Someone who can recognize ancient bedbug faeces? Identifier of book-shaped smoking bullets? Now there’s a guy I’d like to hear more from.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.