Research team seeks answers on how dirty the library is

By on December 4, 2011.

A trio of BYU students embarked on a scavenger hunt in the library this semester, seeking to discover whether the unseen culprits of missed lectures and make-up homework might grow within the pages of textbooks.

The student research team designed their experiment for an assignment from their microbiology class lab assignment. According to team member Joshua Nicholson, a senior environmental science major from Orem, the group first considered exploring the 10-second rule for class but the idea was already taken, and Nicholson said he and his team wanted to come up with something more original. Eventually, the students decided to swab books in the library to test whether microbes could survive and spread in what Nicholson called a “dry, desolate desert for bacteria.”

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Students conduct a research project to evaluate bacteria levels on different books from the Harold B. Lee Library.

The team — comprised of Nicholson, Rob Glover and Nathan Smith — tested two sets of books, those classified as most circulated and least circulated, and compared them to samples taken from the library door knobs. What they found surprised Nicholson, who said he expected the dust collecting on the less popular books to act as a magnet for all sorts of microscopic life.

“Those [least circulated] books were placed in the library and no one ever looked at them again,” Nicholson said.

But books categorized by the library as in high demand averaged 25 to 40 percent more microbial life than the forgotten tomes, according to Nicholson. The team came to that conclusion by counting the number of colony-forming units — little spots of bacterial growth — that developed in agar dishes containing samples from the library books.

“We just counted them all up … ‘one, two, three, OK, there are 16 spots … ew, gross,'” Nicholson said. “And that’s basically what we did with the dishes.”

But the most alarming samples came from door knobs in the library.

“The bacteria on the door handle dish was 100 percent covered in slimy, dark yellow goo,” Nicholson said.

The team, however, was unable to determine the types of microbes present in the samples, according to Nicholson, who said he and his teammate ran out of time before they could do so. Their results only reflected the quantity of microbes living in the library and did not determine whether or not the microbes might be harmful to humans.

The purpose of the assignment, according to plant and wildlife science professor Zachary Aanderud, was to teach methods of experimentation to the students. But because he wanted the students to make the assignment their own, he allowed them to design their own experiment, instead of working on some pre-determined project.

“I like to do more hands-on, student directed assignments,” Aanderud said. “They’ve done this project all on their own. It’s their baby.”

While the assignment was successful in teaching the students about experimental methods, team member Rob Glover, a senior environmental science major from Fort Worth, Texas, said the experiment has also increased his awareness — and wariness — of the presence of unseen microbes.

“I definitely wash my hands after handling books now,” Glover said, “and I have a different perspective on paper cuts. I get those washed out.”