The story of The Strangeness in the Stacks first started making its way through the usually staid antiquarian books community late last year with the publication of a paper in the British medical journal, The Lancet.
There, Dr. R.J. Hay wrote of the possibility that “fungal hallucinogens” in old books could lead to “enhancement of enlightenment.”
“The source of inspiration for many great literary figures may have been nothing more than a quick sniff of the bouquet of mouldy books,” wrote Hay, one of England’s leading mycologists (fungus experts) and dean of dermatology at Guy’s Hospital in London.
Well, said an American expert on such matters, it may not be that easy.
“I agree with his premise–but not his dose. It would take more than a brief sniff,” said Monona Rossol, an authority on the health effects of materials used in the arts world.
For all the parents out there, these revelations would seem ideal for persuading youngsters to spend some quality time in the archives.
But attention kids: You can’t get high walking through the rare books section of the library.
Rossol said it would take a fairly concentrated exposure over a considerable period of time for someone to breathe in enough of the spores of hallucinogenic fungus to seriously affect behavior. There are no studies to tell how much or how long before strange behavior takes hold.
Still, this much seems apparent–if you want to find mold, the only place that may rival a refrigerator is a library.
Just this week the Las Cruces N.M. Public Library was closed indefinitely, prompted by health concerns after a fungus outbreak in the reference section. Library director Carol Brey, former director of Oak Park’s library, said the fungus promptly spread to old history books and onward to the literature section.
The town’s Mold Eradication Team, she said, shuttered the library as a precaution. “We didn’t want to take any chances,” she said. A mold removal company will address the problem, which is believed to have originated in the air conditioning system.
Brey, who suffers from allergies, said she has noticed minor increases in her coughing, runny nose and sneezing. But, she said nobody has reported any hallucinogenic effects.
Psychedelic mushrooms, the classic hallucinogenic fungus, derive their mind-altering properties from the psilocybin and psilocin they produce naturally.
One historic example of this phenomenon, scientists now believe, is the madness that prevailed in the late 1600s in Salem, Mass. where ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus, infected the rye crops that went into rye bread. Ergot contains lysergic acid, a key compound of the hallucinogenic drug LSD. This tiny fungus and its wild effects on the rye-bread-eating women may have led to the Salem witch trials.
Rossol, a New York chemist and consultant to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History who publishes the newsletter ACTS FACTS, the Journal of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, said that there have not been scientific studies on the hallucinogenic effects of old books.
But, relying on accounts from newsletter readers who report their own strange symptoms–ranging from dizziness to violent nausea–she says there is no doubt that moldy old volumes harbor hallucinogens.
The effects and mechanics of hallucinogens are still not fully understood.
“There’s all kinds of symptoms,” said Rossol. “People smelling things that aren’t there. Hearing sounds that aren’t there. And, you see paranoia too. Seeing little green men is only a step away from these things.”
Other symptoms she lists: irritability and “inappropriate anger.”
“I only have appropriate anger!” joked Carol Whitehouse, a book and paper conservator at Chicago’s Newberry Library.
The primary effects she has observed from working around old books have been allergies and difficulty breathing–not hallucinations.
Clearly, book fungi are not producing the dramatic symptoms that led to the Salem witch trials, which probably explains why little is known about the problem.
“We don’t go around culturing old textbooks,” said William Janda, associate director of clinical microbiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center.
“Molds can grow on rubber tires. They’re everywhere, and a lot of them are species of molds that haven’t even been described yet.”
But are they growing in the Library of Congress?
“I’ve seen inappropriate anger, but I wouldn’t attribute it to the books,” said Tom Albro, acting conservation officer at the Library of Congress.
He, nonetheless, is familiar with the potential for mold-related mayhem.
Albro attended a library conference in Sicily where experts showed “grotesque pictures of various mold spores” removed from books.
“The Europeans,” he concluded, “seem to be fascinated by mold . . . and mildew.”