Of lice and library: the tale of an e-mail.

Author:Berg, Rebecca
Position:Inside the Profession

The problem came to the attention of Lawrence Pong, principal environmental health inspector for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, in a roundabout way.


The public library--"a world-class library," Pong noted--had what he called "a political no-win situation." On the one hand, it had a responsibility to the general public to keep the premises free of pests like cockroaches, bedbugs, and lice, and to respond effectively to patron complaints about odors and the trash occasionally left behind by homeless people who sometimes took shelter there. On the other hand, as a matter of government policy (and perhaps, too, as a practical and moral matter), it could not deny entry to people simply because they appeared to be homeless.


Last June, lice showed up on the fifth floor, at a computer station in the Publications Room. The facilities director immediately brought in the custodial staff to clean up the affected tables and computers. They applied bleach and vacuumed. They roped off the area with caution tape. They seemed to have the problem under control--except that then a louse materialized on the fourth floor and was spotted by a librarian as it crawled across the help desk.

That night, the facilities director brought in the library's pest control contractor. This contractor kills lice with steam rather than pesticides. "Very cool," Pong observed. "They use an inexpensive handled steamer, the kind you can get at Target or Sears, to shoot steam into cracks and crevices. They do this for bedbugs too. The dead insects come out in pools of water."

But a mystery remained: How did lice get from the fifth floor, where the main infestation had occurred, to the fourth floor?

The room on the fifth floor does not cover the entire footprint of the building. It is a kind of atrium, flanked by two glass walls, that extends into the center of the library. Pong likened it to a goldfish bowl. Standing in the atrium, one can look through the glass and see the librarian's counter on the fourth floor below.

The pest control contractor examined the electrical outlet boxes under the computer tables on the fifth floor. Perhaps the lice had crawled into the openings and followed the wiring to the floor below? But when the boxes were taken apart, they turned out to dead-end on the fifth floor.

Another though was suggested by the view from the librarian's counter on the fourth floor. Looking up, one could see a soffit located...

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