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Libraries Provide Information About Potentially Harmful Pigment Components in Historical Books

Across Germany, books from the 19th century are currently suspected of being contaminated with toxic arsenic residues. The University of Erfurt also has historical collections in its Erfurt University Library and in the Gotha Research Library that may be affected. We take the issue seriously and are therefore doing everything necessary to rule out any health risks to users. This includes, among other things, the separation of potentially affected collections.

Background: In past centuries, colours containing substances that were sometimes toxic or harmful to health were used in book production. In the 19th century, "Schweinfurt Green" (also known as "Paris Green" or "Emerald Green") in particular was produced industrially and used for book materials, among other things. This is an intense green, lightfast pigment that is artificially produced from a copper-arsenic compound with the anion of acetic acid and can also be a component of blue colours. The pigment was mainly used between 1800 and 1900 and a comparable, equally toxic colourant is "Scheele's green". These pigments can be found on bindings, book cuts, mirrors, endpapers, title and signature plates, marbled papers, delivery covers of journals and in printed or hand-coloured illustrations. The University of Erfurt has such historical holdings in its libraries that may contain harmful pigment components.

For this reason, the Erfurt University Library and Gotha Research Library have currently identified potentially affected collections in order to separate them as quickly as possible and arrange for a corresponding risk assessment. They will therefore not be available for use until further notice, which means that they cannot be ordered or borrowed.

Sorting out the volumes is purely a precautionary measure – albeit a necessary one – to protect health. How many of the books are actually contaminated with arsenic has yet to be determined. While books classified as harmless should be made usable again as quickly as possible, we still need to discuss how to deal with contaminated volumes – for example in the form of special protective measures. However, initial investigations by the German Library Association have concluded that there is no higher risk to people in libraries (neither users nor employees) if the volumes are used in libraries according to normal standards and in an appropriate manner.

Users who want to work with the potentially affected volumes can switch to digital copies if necessary. Which books have already been digitised can be found in the respective library catalogues. We ask for your patience and understanding that the remaining holdings will not be available for the time being.

The libraries will provide information on the current status on their websites and in the user information on display. Users can also contact Gabor Kuhles (Erfurt University Library) or Dr Hendrikje Carius (Gotha Research Library) at any time with their questions.

(updated on 25/03/2024)


Gabor Kuhles
(Erfurt University Library)
C16 – Library / Room 145
Deputy Director / Head of User Services and the Digital Library
(Gotha Research Library)
Forschungsbibliothek Gotha (Gotha, Schlossplatz 1)