Bookworms are real — and not just the human kind. There are some different species of insects that love to feast on books and bindings. When you’re trying to preserve valuable and ancient manuscripts, this can be a huge problem. Two libraries in Portugal have a unique solution. Also, it’s eco-friendly, too. But first, let’s examine the problem.
The Real Bookworms
Several species of insects find books to be an irresistible treat. And this “bugs” librarians to no end, as you can imagine.
First, the brown house moth and the common clothes moth love to munch on cloth book bindings. If you’ve ever had moths chew up your favorite sweater, you can imagine how much worse it would be if that sweater were worth thousands of dollars, like some manuscripts.
Cockroaches, silverfish, and different kinds of beetles love the protein and starch components in different kinds of books. Beetles, in particular, are very fond of leather book bindings.
As for the paper itself? That is a favorite snack of both the booklouse and the woodworm. With all of these and more, gnawing at our precious tomes, it’s a wonder there are any books left intact at all.
Modern bookbinding materials dissuade some of these little monsters. Other solutions have included dousing books in insecticides. This might work against bugs, but it causes other problems, for example, toxicity. When the library where I used to work would receive shipments of insecticide-laced books from different countries, for example, the policy was to immediately dispose of them for the safety of staff and customers. And that was a shame.
But they’re doing something else at At Biblioteca Joanina and the Mafra Palace Library in Portugal. And it’s non-toxic, environmentally sound, and adorable.
The Biblioteca Joanina and the Mafra Palace Library date to the 1700s. Biblioteca Joanina is located in the heart of the University of Coimbra, in Coimbra. The Mafra Palace Library is in Mafra, some 28 miles from the capital of Lisbon.
The Biblioteca Joanina has three stories, and houses around a quarter million books. These books date from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and include some of the world’s greatest works from that time. There are scientific works, books about medicine, geography, and the humanities, and more. It’s a priceless collection, both for the value of the books and for its value to tourism. The library itself is a national monument.
The Mafra Palace Library houses 36,000 leather-bound volumes alone. These books date from the 14th to the 19th century and contain priceless knowledge from and about those eras. Johnathan Swift used the library as the model for the Emperor of Lilliput’s Great Chamber of War in Gulliver’s Travels.
Imagine what could be lost, if marauding, book-eating insects were allowed to thrive.
A Most Adorable Solution
Both of these world famous libraries have colonies of bats that live inside their buildings. The bats are about an inch long, and, just as the bookworms’ favorite snack is old manuscripts, so these unique librarians’ favorite snack is book-eating insects.
No one knows quite how long the bats have been doing their job, but they’re doing it well. So library staff is happy to have them.
Except, perhaps, for the janitorial staff, who start every work day by scrubbing away the thin layer of guano that the bats leave behind in the course of their nighttime work.