Bed Bugs A Real Problem for Libraries

Glenn Waldorf, Bell Environmental Services

Who knew that bed bugs are really book worms that love libraries? 

In September, a Pottsville, Pa., library discovered bed bugs hiding in chairs in its reference department. This follows a rash of bed bug incidents in libraries in

"it’s not a matter of if a facility will get bed bugs, it’s a matter of when."

August. A Middleton, Conn., library traced a bed bug issue to an infested DVD case that was being returned. Bed bugs were found on the undersides of chairs in two separate rooms in a Wichita, Kan., library branch.  A Hamden, Conn., library also traced bed bugs to books that were returned in August. The St. Clair County Library in Michigan received a package of returned items that included bed bugs.

Libraries nationwide have experienced bed bug problems in recent months. In Taylor, Mich., 200 bed bugs were found in the computer area, leading the library to close for treatment.  In Longmont, Colo., bed bugs were found on a number of chairs throughout the library.  Bed bug problems have also been reported in libraries in New York City; Danbury, Conn.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Denver, Colo.; Mesa, Ariz.; Norman and Tulsa, Okla.; and many others since the bed bug epidemic began. 

Considering the number of sightings in libraries in recent months, it’s not a matter of if a facility will get bed bugs, it’s a matter of when. Those that take lightly the challenge bed bugs represent and the issues they cause will have bigger problems when bed bugs strike.

Rarely is it a library’s fault that bed bugs were introduced into a building.  These insects are brought in by patrons or staff in their bags, borrowed books, or personal items.  Unless bed bugs are caught soon after hitching a ride into a library, it is quite possible that these bugs will make the facility their new home. 

Bed bugs stay well hidden and are hard to detect in the early stages of an infestation. Bed bugs hide in cracks and crevices.  Their flat bodies and small size enable them to wedge themselves between the seams of fabric, wood, plastic and metal.  Despite urban myths that a bed bug infestation cannot occur in plastic or metal items, there is no design, furnishing or material that is resistant to bed bugs. Any surface that contains cracks and crevices can provide a harbor for them, making detection difficult. 

When bed bugs invade libraries, offices, and other locations where people do not sleep, normally nocturnal bed bugs adjust their hours and look to feed on people when they are in the building rather than their maintain their typical nighttime feeding schedule in a residence. Additionally, a pair of bed bugs can multiply into a large infestation in a short period of time. Recent infestations have shown that bed bugs don’t confine themselves to one area of a library. They’ve been found in computer areas, returned items, the book drop, under employees’ chairs, and other places.

The many people coming in and out of libraries on a daily basis represent opportunities for bed bugs both to eat and migrate.  The fact that many people settle in for long periods of time at library reading tables provides these wingless insects significant opportunities to feed.  In addition to bed bugs making themselves at home in these libraries, everyone who enters the facility – including staff and visitors – runs the risk of bed bugs hitchhiking home with them.
Bed bugs represent more than a quality of life issue for people of all ages. They can create medical problems in that they cause itchy bites to human skin and can lead to secondary infections. Bed bugs have recently been shown to carry MRSA. Bed bugs also cause victims psychological distress. In addition, there is a social stigma attached to the victims and institutions that have bed bugs even though the libraries and people may be blameless.

Bed bugs can also lead to property damage and unexpected treatment costs.  When a patron heavily infested some rare and historic books, some 200 years old, belonging to a Denver, Colo., library, the books had to be destroyed and replaced at a cost of $12,000, in addition to pest control services that cost $6,000. Other libraries have thrown out infested furniture.

Frequent visitor traffic also means that bed bugs are a constant threat of invasion, or reinvasion.  In one case, an infested library was treated, only to have the problem return.  Either someone brought a new set of bed bugs into the library, or it may have been the same patron, whose home could have been infested. It could have even been a staff member, who transported bed bugs home weeks ago, and unknowingly brought them back. 

Given these circumstances, and public and employee fears, there are protocols that libraries should implement to detect, prevent, and treat bed bug issues. My company, Bell Environmental Services, works with a number of libraries to detect and solve bed bug issues.  Libraries need to weigh public access with patrons and employees’ safety.  Libraries need to develop plans in advance of any infestation. Improvising when issues arise will create additional problems, cause delays, and leave out essential measures.  Important elements to include in your action plans are education, room preparation, protection of assets (books, DVDs, collections), pest control, and communications strategy.

Here are several proactive steps libraries can take to help reduce the risks of infestations and lessen their impact when issues arise.

•    Design education programs to inform staff about the issue and the protocols. Education and vigilance are the first tools a library should use against the bed bug epidemic. All employees – everyone from researchers to the janitorial staff – should be prepared to identify and act on issues to avoid the problems that stem from major infestations.

•    Provide these sessions on an ongoing basis, given staff turnover.

•    Determine if and how the library should educate patrons about bed bugs.

•    Budget for bed bug detection and treatment costs; understand how they are a distinct issue from other pest control and maintenance expenses.

•    When patrons return borrowed items, place all returned items in sealed ziploc bags to lessen the risk of bed bugs being introduced into the collection.

•    Implement prevention strategies, possibly even limiting what people can bring into the main library, as opposed to a cloak room or closet.

•    Schedule canine inspections from trained bed bug detection teams on a periodic basis. Remember, bed bugs can be introduced into a facility at any time. By the time bed bugs are easily seen, it’s too late. An infestation is has already become full blown.

•    When one bed bug is sighted, acknowledge that there are likely more. Typically around 20 percent of a location is infested before an employee or patron might spot a live bed bug. 

•    When issues arise, act with the urgency and seriousness necessary to show the institution’s concern for the welfare of staff and patrons and solve problems before they spread.

•    Maintain clear and consistent communication strategies when issues arise, including maintaining a chain of command and discretion to avoid causing panic.

•    Select safe, effective, and thorough pest control treatment methods that do not affect patrons’  health, damage collections, or ruin computer equipment and furniture. Use only experienced and reputable pest control companies whose bed bug treatments are primarily physical in nature. Chemicals should only be used as a secondary measure, if at all.

•    Pest control treatment decisions should be careful not to disrupt library hours and access to books and other materials.

Bed bugs will continue to pose a significant problem for libraries. Creating protocols that lessen the ways of these critters can be introduced into a building and ensuring that remediation plans are in place will limit the risks of full-blown infestations that can affect a library’s operations and reputation.

Glenn Waldorf is a director with Bell Environmental Services. Bell Environmental Services, Inc. is a full-service pest control company founded in 1963 that serves the New York Metropolitan Area. Bell uses its non-toxic and chemical-free InstantFreeze method to treat all areas bed bugs hide, including personal luggage, fine furnishings, and electronics. Bell provides pest control and bed bug control services for many libraries, schools, and public institutions. Bell Environmental’s InstantFreeze program does not force room closures so facilities can keep rooms open for use. Please contact Bell at 877-662-9991 or visit