This is actually going to be a little different to some of my other post. It’s more of a snippet of the past and doesn’t involve a lot of photos. I still thought it was an interesting history worthy of discussion- especially in current circumstances. The library sign you can see in the above photo is a ghost sign, as in the library no longer exists and is now a cafe.
So, hygienic libraries. What were they?
The concept arose when it was discovered in the late 1800s that disease could be passed on by bacteria, and books were seen to be one of the main items that would carry the bacteria. This is the era of subscription libraries like mechanics institutes, which you can find out more about in this post. So hygiene of books became a selling point for some of these libraries. Some advertised specifically as hygienic libraries as in the photo, but others were general subscription libraries with ‘hygienic’ facilities. An example of this second sort was the Boulder Public Library in Western Australia which in 1937 guaranteed the hygiene of their books by installing a fumigator. The fumigator used formalin and permanganate of potash to treat books over a 12 hour period. This particular fumigator was built of Queensland hoop pine and was seen as an attractive addition to the library furniture.
The concept certainly was in vogue, with some libraries like the Rockhampton School of Arts opting to fumigate all the shelves every year. Other hygienic libraries in the 30s, like one in Parramatta, opted to prepare the books with a material that allowed them to be disinfected when they came back into the library.
The movement died off with the wane of subscription libraries, in the face of council public libraries, and as the risk of infectious diseases like smallpox and scarlet fever also declined.
But we are still left with the signs of their existence. I haven’t been able to find anymore information about Girdwood’s Hygienic Library in the photo other than they may have used formaldehyde to wipe down the books (the sign is in Flemington in Melbourne) but if anyone out there knows more, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll add it into the post.
Addendum: 21/08/20 The Age has written an article about the Girdwood Hygienic Library
Photo is by Dan Coates