A Library Assistant’s Experience of Books Exposed to Tobacco Smoke

This account is told by Robert Heard. It was edited for clarity by Leslie McGrath and the Thirdhand Smoke Resource Center.

I was employed at a large urban public library for 33 years. My first full-time position was a book collector, where I was responsible for retrieving long overdue materials from delinquent borrowers and occasionally tracking down caches of lost library books. Later I became a library assistant, performing all sorts of duties related to the circulation of library books. In both capacities, I encountered the problem of dealing with books affected by tobacco smoke and the patrons who returned these books.

Two examples of heavy tobacco pollution really stand out. The first happened when I was a book collector. I was called by a landlady to retrieve library property. In the course of cleaning out a vacated apartment, this lady had come across some books with library markings on them. “Bring your gas mask,” she told me. I went in to check. The place was drenched in byproducts of tobacco smoke and an oily residue coated the 200-odd books lying in boxes. I had no way of knowing how long the books had been there, but they were utterly saturated with nicotine. I had to abandon them; they could never have been put back on the shelves for borrowing.

The second case happened while I was a library assistant. An elderly gentleman came regularly to borrow hardback mystery fiction for his wife, taking 40-50 books at a time as he worked his way through the collection. This went on for three borrowing cycles of three weeks each before we had to take action, and I was delegated to speak to him. The problem was that in spite of the short borrowing period the books, were full with stale tobacco smoke. I had to tell the gentleman that the books he returned were no longer fit to circulate. He was gracious about it, and his wife made an effort to fan away the smoke, but we could still smell the smoke even before we opened the books.

I realized then that it is clearly evident if a book has been handled or read by a heavy smoker, or even kept in a smoker’s room. I also wonder about the insidious effects of tobacco smoke on library books; even if these are periodically discarded, what is the cumulative effect on workers handling the books? And what about the borrowers who take home books that are perhaps less obviously affected, but still bear the toxic residue of tobacco smoke?

The ideas and opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and editor and do not represent those of any institution.


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