March 20, 2018

Don’t Let the Book Bugs Bite

In August 2012, bed bugs were found in lounge chairs at Wichita Public Libraries Central Branch, KS.
Director Cynthia Berner Harris tackled the issue head-on. Like many library managers dealing with bed bugs, she closed the building for treatment and informed the public about the library’s response. She also offered the public an insider’s view by recording the library employee bed bug training and broadcasting the video on the Wichita City cable channel. “We knew the sound bite would be bed bugs in the library. We wanted to get ahead of that message,” Berner Harris says. “One thing that we did differently from some other libraries was the degree to which we talked to the community.”

As a result, patrons felt comfortable coming to the library with their concerns about bed bugs in their homes, Berner Harris says. “That’s one of the benefits about being so open; [patrons] are taking responsibility for being part of the solution,” she says.

WHAT DETECTION & PREVENTION LOOK LIKE (Top row, l.-r.): Telltale signs of bed bugs are the appearance of dark spots on book pages; Polly and her handler Phillip Sitzman do the sniff test for bugs at Islip PL; one solution used by Kalamazoo PL is the PackTite, which kills bugs on items through the application of heat (inset); (bottom row, l.-r.) manual inspection of materials can also uncover the tiny culprits; at the opposite end of the temperature spectrum, freezing can also do the trick, as endorsed by Stephanie Lamson, head of preservation services, University of Washington. Bug photo by Allison Taisey-Cornell/Cornell University; dog photo by Theresa Madonia/Islip PL; Green Book photo by Kathryn Leonard/University of Washington; Lamson photo by University of Washington; inspection photo by Farrell Howe/Kalamazoo PL

Bed bugs are a growing problem in public buildings around the United States in part because of an increase in international travel from countries where the insects thrive. Additionally, bed bugs developed resistance to certain pesticides and that contributed to the resurgence of the common bed bug in the United States, says Cornell University entomologist Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, who serves as community coordinator of the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program.

Libraries are not ideal environments for the tiny oval-shaped Cimex lectularius, which prefer to be near sleeping people. However, a number of public and academic libraries from California to New York have been challenged in recent years by bed bugs, having to close several buildings while a pest control company treated furnishings and books. That’s because bed bugs can stow away on books, clothing, and belongings such as backpacks, then be transported to other locations, including libraries. “There is no cut-and-dried way to solve this problem,” says Farrell Howe, marketing and communications director for the Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL), MI. “You have to have a plan in place.” KPL temporarily closed two of its five branches in February to treat for bed bugs.

Staff training on prevention, detection, treatment, and communication to patrons are the keys to preventing bed bug infestations and public panic. Many libraries have procedures for dealing with pests, and bed bug plans can be incorporated into those procedures. “As creepy awful as they are, bed bugs don’t carry disease,” says Sue Feir, director of the Hastings-on-Hudson Library, Yonkers, NY, which was closed briefly in September 2012 to treat part of the building for the pests. “It’s something you deal with.”

Although libraries are at lower risk of bed bug infestation compared with hotels, hospitals, and other public buildings where people sleep, Gangloff-Kaufmann says that if bed bugs get established, they can be difficult to eradicate.

“The thing about bed bugs is, you have to stop them before they get started,” says Genine Plunkett, Denver Public Library’s (DPL) manager of reference services. DPL educates patrons online and with fliers posted on DPL book drops detailing the life cycle of bed bugs. Patrons are instructed to put suspect materials into plastic bags and call staff for instructions.


Bed bugs arrive at libraries through materials returned to book drops as well as on patrons’ bags or clothing. Once inside, they can hide on shelves and in furnishings, but they will seek out people on which to snack. After customers complained of bites at Wichita Central and Hastings-on-Hudson Library, bed bugs were found in lounge chairs, prompting immediate temporary closures and treatment. Inspecting materials during check-in can prevent an infestation. Encourage library staff to be vigilant in looking for signs of the pests on returned materials or in library buildings, says KPL’s Howe. “This is something where every staff member needs to take personal responsibility,” DPL’s Plunkett says.

Look for pieces of bed bug shells from molting, pearly eggs that are smaller than rice grains, and excrement, tiny, dark, red, brown, or black spots, Gangloff-Kaufmann says. And not just circulation desk staff: make sure the library’s custodial service knows what to look for, says Stephanie Lamson, head of preservation services at the University of Washington (UW) Libraries, Seattle. During furniture upgrades or remodels, consider replacing woven fabric with bed bug–resistant materials in vinyl and faux leather, Hastings-on-Hudson’s Feir says.


At Islip Public Library (IPL), NY, bed bugs have not been a problem, but Director Mary Schubart placed inexpensive “insect inceptor” cups under furnishings as a precaution. Bed bugs fall into the cup and can’t escape; staff members check the cups. So far the only bed bugs found at IPL were dead in a returned book, caught at check-in, Schubart says.

Additionally, finding a bed bug doesn’t mean the library has a problem, Gangloff-Kaufmann says. “I do like to remind people that a bed bug introduction is not a bed bug infestation.”

A bed bug–detecting canine visits IPL quarterly as a precautionary measure. Many libraries where bed bugs have been a problem pay for monthly or bimonthly visits from a dog, which can cost up to $500 a visit. At IPL, Polly, a rat terrier from Arrow Exterminating Company, usually leaves just as patrons arrive, and the patrons asking about the canine appear to be reassured, Schubart says. “[Polly] is pretty adorable. The patrons actually enjoy seeing the dog,” she says.

The mere finding of a bed bug, especially if the insect was isolated on the way into a building, does not mean a library needs to spend money on a dog, Gangloff-Kaufmann says. But some public agencies find canine inspections put employees at ease and create goodwill with organized labor groups, she says.

Depending on the circumstances, the sensitive canine nose can determine the extent of a bed bug problem, says Joe Kennedy, vice president of Arrow Exterminating. “The dog is much better than a human—faster and much more accurate. Imagine trying to go through every area,” he says. “We also insist, if the dog finds the bed bug, that we find it also.”


When bed bugs are found in the library, the approach to eradicating them depends on where they are found. Cold, heat, and some pesticides also will kill them. (Phantom and Temprid are the two most popular pesticides used by companies to treat bed bugs, according to Pest World’s 2011 Bed Bugs Without Borders Survey.) Bed bugs can also die from dehydration, ­Gangloff-Kaufmann says.

For the occasional item with a bed bug that a patron returns, Gangloff-Kaufmann recommends placing it in a Ziploc bag and putting it aside for about two weeks in a warm, sunny area. This gives any eggs time to hatch, and any bed bugs should die of dehydration. However, waiting for bed bugs to die of thirst may not be practical for libraries dealing with large volumes of materials, or located in communities where the pests are a problem.

Kalamazoo and other libraries have purchased portable heating devices, such as Thermal Strike or PackTight, which cost $180–$300, Howe says. Problem items are bagged and then heated to the entomologist-recommended 125°.

Cold is best for rare or delicate books, UW’s Lamson says. She recommends freezing at minus 20° Celsius for a week, followed by thawing and then refreezing to kill any newly hatched bed bugs. Lamson successfully used this treatment at UW Libraries in August 2012: when ten items in a book drop were found to contain the insects, she froze the other 45 books from the drop as a precautionary measure. Ask a regional conservation or preservation expert to recommend a disaster recovery firm with a freezer, because conventional freezers don’t get cold enough, Lamson says. (According to Gangloff-Kaufmann, studies are under way in Minnesota to determine the ideal cold temperature to kill bed bugs.)

If bed bugs are found in the library itself, call an expert to determine whether heat, cold, chemicals, or a combination are the best approach, especially if computers are infested. (A new product is also being tested that sends out a pheromone to attract bed bugs to trap them, but it may be impractical for library use.) Not all pest companies take the same approach, even to the same infestation: estimates to treat the Wichita library ranged from $3,000 to $98,000, Berner Harris says. (The high- end price would have covered sealing the building and wrapping it in plastic while it was being sprayed.) For advice, she turned to city airport custodians and a library employee who once worked in pest control. Regardless of the treatment method, all contaminated items will need to be rechecked to ensure that any eggs that survived the first treatment have not hatched, requiring a second treatment, Kennedy says. Eggs can take five to 15 days to hatch. The pest control company comes back after a month, giving the eggs time to hatch but making sure the bugs aren’t yet mature enough to breed.

DIY treatments using microwaves or ovens can be disastrous for library materials, and if RFID tags are used, for the microwaves, says Kalamazoo’s Howe. Arrow Exterminating’s Kennedy has heard of incidents where the fire suppression sprinklers were triggered by misguided efforts to heat a building to a temperature that would kill bed bugs. “You have to know what you’re doing, or you may create a problem that is worse than you have,” Kennedy says.

Patron pests

Most of the librarians LJ spoke to try to be understanding of patrons who are battling bed bug problems at their homes. Generally, DPL doesn’t contact patrons to inform them of pests in a book. “If the person is at the desk, we try discreetly to let the customer know,” Plunkett says. “We want to make sure we’re respecting privacy.”

When a patron intentionally contaminates materials with pests or damages an item in a misguided attempt to destroy bed bugs, library administrators say they will block library cards and consider holding the customer financially responsible. KPL will charge patrons for damages if they try to treat a book themselves, Howe says. In an extremely unusual and highly publicized case, a DPL patron in 2009 repeatedly brought back infested materials, including interlibrary loan items. Ultimately, the patron was banned from the library and ordered by the Denver County Court to reimburse $2,800 of the $4,550 cost for material replacement and treating the bed bugs, says Jen Morris, DPL spokeswoman.

Wichita libraries have suspended a patron’s borrowing privileges in a few cases until receiving a note from a pest control company showing a successful treatment. “We will not take that step unless we are really confident of that chain of custody. That’s not an easy call to make,” Berner Harris says.

Straight talk

To prevent public panic over bed bugs, communicate calmly, professionally, and be matter-of-fact and up-front, Howe says. Dispel misinformation, such as the inaccurate assumption that a dirty home will attract bed bugs. Remind patrons that bed bugs don’t transmit disease. Kalamazoo designated a bed bug team of three people to respond to queries about the insects.

Wichita librarians help guide cash-strapped patrons to resources, such as the United Way, according to Berner Harris. Denver has collected resources online, and reference librarians are prepared to help people get information about bed bugs. “It’s a community issue, and we try to lead them to the resources,” Plunkett says.

At Hastings-on-Hudson, Feir explains to inquiring patrons that public buildings often deal with a variety of health hazards or nuisances that library workers can’t control. One patron asked whether Feir could turn away people who are suspected of having bed bugs. Feir responded, “No, you can’t,” comparing it to turning away a patron showing signs of illness.

Lamson suggests talking to patrons about the Bed Bugs Without Borders Survey, which found that libraries are among the least affected public buildings. Pest control experts surveyed in 2011 reported that only eight percent of their library customers needed help with bed bugs, but 80 percent of hotel and motel customers had found bed bugs.

The risk of finding bed bugs in the library varies by community, though dense urban communities may be at higher risk. “If you live in one of those hot-spot areas, you might be at risk, but most people are not at risk,” Gangloff-Kaufmann says. Adding, the odds of a library patron bringing home bed bugs in a book are extremely low. People are more likely to catch the flu at the library, Lamson says, and Gangloff-Kaufmann confirms.

If bed bugs are found, tell the community what the library is doing to take care of the problem, library leaders say. In Wichita, Berner Harris took advantage of the public relations opportunity provided by the photogenic bed bug–sniffing beagle called Ms. Liberty Belle to reassure patrons. “We put the dog on our Facebook page,” Berner Harris says.

Marta Murvosh, MLS, works for a regional library system in Northwestern Washington as a library associate. You can follow her on Facebook

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.


  1. Anonymous says:

    This is a thorough article and takes a responsible view on an epidemic problem. However, as a library employee I can honestly say that it isn’t very practical. First of all, if I took time to inspect every book or DVD, I’d be there till doomsday. No supervisor is going to accept taking that kind of time to shelve books, and the problem is that the telltale specks and eggs are almost impossible to see and certainly not visible within spines. Also, just a point – we are talking about insects that are microscopic in early life stages. Sure, you can see a full-grown bed bug full of your blood – but you will NEVER see a nymph. My fear is bringing even one tiny nymph home from work with me, because if you have ever endured a bed bug treatment it’s not something you forget in a hurry. So to Ms. Feir, who thinks that you just “deal” with bed bugs – I say, all this advice is the tip of the iceberg for people who work in libraries.