Curled up in the spare bed in the wee hours of morning, Star staff photographer David Cooper’s wife Peggi-jean, cracked open the new Peter Robinson murder mystery she got from the public library Tuesday afternoon.
Half an hour in, a brown bug the size of an apple seed skittered across the page. She squished it into a smear of what looked like blood.
“I’m pretty intuitive and I immediately thought bedbug. And then I thought no, that’s not possible,” she said.
She continued reading. Then another appeared.
She killed it, and immediately sealed the book inside a Ziploc bag.
In the morning, a third bedbug emerged from the pages, crawling slowly around the bag and over the hardcover copy of Watching the Dark.
Like movie theatres, hospital waiting rooms and subways, the Toronto public library system — which operates 98 branches with 1.2 million members and an annual circulation of 31 million items — is no exception to the bedbug scourge plaguing urban areas across North America.
“They go with us everywhere,” says entomologist Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann at Cornell University. “But I don’t think libraries are big players (in transferring bedbugs). The reason that bedbugs show up in libraries is their use as a place for the community.”
In 2010, bedbugs were reported at the Toronto Reference library and at the Yorkville and Parliament branches. The first live bugs in Vancouver-area public libraries were found in bookslast year and similar stories abound in libraries south of the bordered.
“I’m really upset because I don’t know what this means to me as a consumer,” says Cooper, who spent the morning laundering sheets and vacuuming the room, just in case. “I use books like a drug and I can’t afford to buy the number of books that I read.”
“Should I go to another branch?” she wonders. She has gone to the Beaches library at least twice a week for 20 years. “But I put books on hold all the time, and they come in from all over the city.”
Finding bedbugs in books is a rare problem “that the library is aware of and we have very strong treatment and preventative measures in place . . . it’s certainly not something we want our customers to be scared of at all,” says Toronto Public Library spokesperson Ana-Maria Critchley.
Over the past year the library has had 24 confirmed bedbug incidents out of 38 reported. The calls are split evenly between finding the bugs in furniture at various branches and finding them in books.
Critchley says when bedbug sightings are reported, they are investigated and if necessary, treated by a pest control company, like in early November, when a chair at the same Beaches library was found to have bedbugs.
It was sealed then taken away, heat-treated, steam-cleaned and returned to the branch, says Gail Rankin, Toronto Public Library senior manager of facilities management. A full inspection was also done of the branch.
“People shouldn’t stop using libraries . . . you may have a better chance of catching bedbugs from riding the TTC,” says Daniel Mackie, technical services manager at Greenleaf Pest Control.
“But (are bedbugs in library books) common? Yes. People bring books home and they put them on the nightstand, they put them on their beds and bedbugs love cracks and crevices.”
Females can lay eggs in the spines of hardcover books, or lurk under the paper covers.
However, books are only attractive to the insects when they are near humans, says entomologist Gangloff-Kaufmann. Bookshelves are a difficult place for them to survive, so highly circulated books like the one Cooper was reading are the most likely carriers.
In Toronto, library books are visually inspected when they are returned and library staff will seal any suspect books away in plastic bags, says Rankin. They are passed onto a pest control company, and if bedbugs are found the book is destroyed. If someone finds a bedbug in their borrowings, they can seal the book in a plastic bag and bring it to the library.
But Cooper, her holiday stack of books trapped in plastic, remains wary of returning to her once-favourite place.
“I have a bunch of books on hold that I’m really excited about,” she says. “Now I don’t know what to do.”
As an avid library user, bedbug expert Mackie suggests thumbing through the book beforehand, looking for bugs and black spots before taking it out. To be extra careful, seal the book in a Ziploc bag and leave it in the freezer for a week, or in summer, leave it in the sun or in a hot car for a few hours.