Conservation and the Quarterly Pest Report

The generosity of donors like you helps us care for a world-renowned collection of some 1.6 million books, 600,000 maps, and 5 million manuscript pages. One vital aspect of that care is ensuring that nothing eats the materials.

“Bugs are a reality in our lives, be it at home or at work,” says Conservation Services Assistant Henry Harris. “We take a special interest because certain types of bugs common in our region can pose a threat to our collection items.”

Harris researches, writes, and publishes the Newberry’s quarterly Pest Report, a much-loved internal email from the Conservation Services Department that updates staff on the condition of creepy-crawlers at the Newberry while offering fun facts to entice otherwise hesitant readers.

Every three months, Harris examines and replaces 118 glue traps scattered across the library. Each trap is two-by-three inches and bright white. Eagle-eyed patrons might spot some in the reading rooms and galleries—please, don’t disturb them! Each trap has been strategically placed by the Conservation team to yield helpful data about bugs’ lives at the Newberry. As is fitting for a library, knowledge is the primary goal.

“We do this work understanding that we can never truly make all of the bugs go away,” Harris says. “It’s all about keeping the numbers minimal, and we have techniques for doing that.”

Climate control is the library’s main line of defense. A book-friendly, bug-hostile environment has a relative humidity of 52%, a temperature around 68°F, and strict limits on where people can eat and drink. These conditions not only discourage pests from sticking around but also reduce the risk of damage to collection items.

But climate control isn’t easy. Chicago’s muggy summers put stress on the Newberry’s HVAC system, and frequent rains can drive pests to shelter inside. “The main way pests come in is through windows, doors, or even riding in on people’s clothes,” Harris says. He notes that the library’s main building, designed by Henry Ives Cobb and built in 1893, contains many “hotspots” for pests—office spaces, reading rooms, and program venues.

But that’s okay, says Harris.

“While we try to maintain a clear global picture of what’s going on in the building, our priority is the stacks,” he explains. “So long as the stacks and link spaces have the fewest amount of pests, that’s great. And since I’ve been here, that’s always been the case.”

The stacks building, opened in 1982, houses most of the Newberry’s collection. You may recognize it by its cylindrical column on the northwest side of the Newberry. It has no windows, boasts an independent HVAC system, and is insulated by an air pocket between the exterior and interior walls. This design makes its internal environment less subject to external weather changes and makes the collection less accessible to curious or hungry bugs. The link spaces that connect the stacks to the Cobb building serve as additional buffers. Rather than risk admitting stowaways, staff house new acquisitions in link spaces until the lifecycle of potential pests is complete.

The list of pests that directly threaten the collection is, thankfully, short. Silverfish eat starch, often found in paper and glue. Booklice seek out trace amounts of mold, often found in the bindings of old books. Members of the family Dermestidae, also known as leather beetles, go after vellum and—you guessed it—leather bindings. Any of these pests can potentially compromise a collection item’s integrity.

On the other hand, things like spiders and house centipedes don’t directly threaten the collection but can still be cause for concern. “These are pests that feed on smaller pests, so it’s kind of like that ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ phenomenon,” says Harris.

Other visitors make appearances as well—wool carder bees, butterflies, mud daubers, a very confused bat that was safely released outdoors—but they’re rare.

“One of my favorite surprise pest findings was when Cheryl Wegner in collection services found a Red Admiral Butterfly in the cataloging area,” Harris says. “When it was put on my desk, I was like ‘this looks like a moth.’ But something about it seemed kind of different, so I left it there for a while. Then at Book Fair, I found a butterfly and moth book and was able to finally identify it. I don’t even know how it got into the building, but it was pretty cool.”

When told how much his colleagues look forward to the Pest Report, Harris laughs. “I’m happy to hear that it’s fun to read, especially for something that might be boring or just gross to many people. To make it a bit more fun, I like adding relevant information that’s less serious down at the bottom. I just really like footnotes.”

Some footnotes are lighthearted commentary:

“Monarch Butterflies have mostly migrated to Mexico for the winter. It’s amazing how such small creatures can travel hundreds of miles. And yet, the aggressive and very mobile Canada geese never take a vacation.”

Others encourage staff members to engage with bug populations in healthy, eco-friendly ways:

“Looking to get into beekeeping but don’t want to buy the suit? Best Bees is a national network of beekeepers that maintains beehives placed on your property. Phone: 617-445-2322.”

Harris wants to let readers know that while bugs are definitely pests in the context of the Newberry, they’re part of the urban ecosystem. “We have a lot of birds and other animals that eat these bugs. It’s a circle of life that’s happening, so we would never want to eliminate them. If we can keep them away from the collection, that’s good enough.”

Interested in learning more about eco-friendly ways to protect your collection? Harris recommends the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and their information on pesticides and pest control alternatives.

You can also listen to Harris talk more about the Pest Report and his philosophy around bugs in a 2019 episode of Shelf Life, a Newberry podcast.

In the meantime, Harris and his colleagues have begun work on the Spring 2021 Pest Report and, of course, its accompanying footnotes. “It’s about finding things that other people might find interesting,” he says. “And it’s a good time to highlight other unexpected things going on at the Newberry.”

This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Spring 2021. In this newsletter the Newberry shares with its donors exciting stories of the success and innovation made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.