In Germany, 19th-century books stained with arsenic are being removed from libraries

In Germany, 19th-century books stained with arsenic are being removed from libraries

Tens of thousands of books will be affected: the bright green dye was widely used in bookmaking in the 19th century.


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A picture of the books quarantined for analysis.  (Julia Böhmer/University Bielefeld)

Books contaminated with arsenic.. The story reminds us of the famous movie and novel: The name of the rose. This is what is happening in Germany, where tens of thousands of works in many university libraries will be affected. In question: A green dye, which was very popular in the 19th century and was used in bookmaking.

Many institutions have begun isolating suspicious quantities for examination. The university library in Bielefeld, a city of 330,000 in northwestern Germany, is preparing to quarantine 60,000 books.

Thanks to its bright green color, potentially contaminated books are easy to spot. Not all of them have yet been removed from library shelves. In one corridor, director Barbara Knörn points to a book dedicated to German history: “This book, for example, has a distinct green color. Sometimes the cover or spine of the book is green. The health risk is when we handle books, when arsenic is put on the hands and then brought to the mouth.”

“Wonderfully intense and subtle pigmentation”

60,000 buildings will have to be tested to assess the presence of arsenic. These are books published in the nineteenth century. Back when the dye – called Schweinfurt Green – was widely used. Reinhard Altenhüner, a member of the board of directors of the German Library Association, estimates that between 5 and 7 percent of books are contaminated: “It was a wonderfully dense and fine pigment. Making books in this way made it attractive. It is said that Goethe was very fond of this green colour. It is arsenic that gives this particular colour. The danger is that it causes discomfort, vomiting or diarrhea, even cancer, even “If only that were so unlikely.”

Reinhard Altenhüner, Member of the Board of Directors of the German Library Association.  (Sebastien Bayer/Radio France)

The 24,000 students were alerted to the risks via internal messages. This doesn't stop Paul, when we meet him leaving the library, from getting a little worried: “It's strange to think that arsenic is everywhere here. Right now, I come to study here 5 or 6 days a week… It's a bit scary to be exposed to such toxic materials.”

Library management estimates that 6,000 books in its collection may be contaminated. Once identified, they are removed from the shelves, explains Birgit Heuer, who works in the loan department: “Students are asked to return the books they borrowed. We take them with gloves and then put them in envelopes or boxes until they are examined.” Analysis will begin in the coming days. Arsenic-contaminated works will be set aside and then converted into digital form to remain accessible to students.

In Germany, 19th-century books stained with arsenic are being removed from libraries. Report by Sebastian Bayer

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