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Handling Library Materials and Collections During a Pandemic
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Last updated: March 1, 2021
A pandemic is an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. The following information and resources are meant to assist libraries, institutions, and archives during a pandemic. The resources below focus on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 diseases. An emphasis is put on resources that focus on safely handling collections during the COVID-19 pandemic. This page will be updated with new information as the COVID-19 situation develops and additional research is available.
REALM Resources REALM is a research project conducted by OCLC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Battelle to produce science-based information about how materials can be handled to mitigate COVID-19 exposure to staff and visitors of archives, libraries, and museums. Below are a series of recommended links on the project’s website.
REALM Homepage To see the latest publications, webinars, and an overview of REALM’s research timeline.
REALM Libraries Toolkit A set of tools including visual aids on research findings, videos, literature review highlights, and decision-making checklists.
REALM Research Full research findings from the REALM Project on natural attenuation times for SARS-CoV-2 on surfaces, including tables of items, materials, and the time it took for SARS-CoV-2 to attenuate on the surface under given conditions.
Additional Disinfection and Pandemic Preparedness Resources
COVID-19 Resources from EBSCO Provides free resources and expanded access to content to help support institutions.
Department of Homeland Security Master Question List for COVID-19 (Caused by SARS-CoV-2) A resource updated almost weekly on major questions relating to COVID-19.
Disinfecting Circulating Books and Other Collections Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC)'s recommendations for disinfecting books and other materials, including guidance on disinfecting facilities and a list of disinfection methods which are not recommended.
Center for Disease Control: Recommendations for Election Polling Locations Interim guidance intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at polling locations with information for facilities and personnel safety.
Pandemic Preparedness Resources from the American Library Association (ALA) Provides information about preparing for a pandemic, including library-specific policy suggestions and more universal resources on pandemic education, prevention, and preparation.
Additional Resources and Recommendations The following recommendations are from the Preservation Administrators Discussion Group of the American Library Association (PADG) and the CORE Preservation Outreach Committee.
- Allowing collections to remain untouched in quarantine is the recommended method of disinfecting library collection materials.
- Libraries are recommended to devise and standardize an approach to quarantine and collections handling that is suitable to their local context. An example of an institution doing so — and making their procedures publicly known — is New York University Libraries . ( Please note: this is intended as an example of communicating procedures, not an endorsement of specific quarantine times .)
- Many institutions have promised to use a disinfection system such as Clorox® Total 360® to clean their spaces. This specific system is NOT recommended for use with paper-based collections. The guidelines from Clorox state that all paper should be removed from areas prior to application.
Updated March 1, 2021
How to Quarantine Public Library Materials
by Liz Bowie
As libraries across the country begin to expand their services with curbside pickup and plan for how they will reopen their doors to the public, the question of how to transfer library materials back and forth safely is on everyone’s minds.
It can be a challenge to find definitive answers, as sources and research can be conflicting. Below you’ll find a roundup of the research on how to quarantine materials and the steps to follow based on recommended guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Library Association (ALA), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT).
Quarantine for the Recommended Time
At this time, there are various guidelines for how long to quarantine library materials. ALA has assembled a wealth of information on its Handling Library Materials and Collections During a Pandemic page. Their sources for how to quarantine and disinfect books include the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NDCC), which recommends a 24- to 48-hour quarantine of returned books. For uncoated paper and cardboard, the Institute of Museum and Library Services suggests following the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation of a 24-hour quarantine.
Additionally, the ILMS REALM (Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums) Project discovered that the virus was undetectable after two days on archival folders and after four days on braille pages, glossy book pages, and board book; magazine pages had a trace amount of the virus after four days. The fourth stage of the REALM Project indicated that stacking materials can prolong the life of the virus, which was still detectable on stacked materials up to six days later.
The NCPTT cites an article from the Journal of Hospital Infection that states the virus can live on paper four to five days and on plastics for up to nine days. Depending on the surface, items should be quarantined for the recommended number of days.
Limit Transfer of Germs
The NDCC recommends wearing gloves to transport items into quarantine and removing them immediately after to avoid transferring the virus to other surfaces. Staff should also wear masks when working with quarantined materials and wash their hands for at least 20 seconds after handling materials, per CDC guidelines.
Surfaces such as tabletops, chairs, door handles, book returns, booktrucks , bins , and any other surfaces that have been touched should be disinfected thoroughly between transfer of materials.
Separate Circulating Materials
Ensure that your patrons know the protocol for returning items to your library. Is there a specific book return you would like them to use? Are you accepting returns at curbside pickup? Even if you are very clear in your communication, be prepared to manage patrons attempting to return items at other locations or times.
Dedicate specific booktrucks or bins for quarantined items, or place them in bags for the quarantine period. They should be labeled with the date they were placed in quarantine to help track when they can be circulated again.
Consider Disinfecting Before Reshelving
The quarantine time is designed to eliminate the need for disinfecting, as the virus should no longer live on the surface of those materials. However, after quarantining for the allotted number of hours, you may wish to wipe items that can withstand it, such as book jacket covers or DVD cases .
Share your protocol with all staff members and display the steps to ensure they’re being followed.
Follow the Research
For further information, watch pediatrician and children’s librarian Dr. Dipesh Navsaria’s presentation “ COVID-19: Safety Tips for Reopening Your Library, ” and check out the “ Checklist for Library Curbside Pickup Services ” and “ 10 Take-Home Kits for Your Summer Reading Program .”
As researchers learn more about COVID-19, we’ll continue to monitor the studies and keep you informed about the best ways to manage your circulating collections to keep everyone safe.
COVID-19 public library
The date of this article is May 5, 2020 so this information is very dated. Do you have updated information? Thank you, Jeanne Zamutt Librarian Temple Emanu-El Dallas, Texas 75225
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Libraries still quarantine books, even as cases drop and vaccinations rise
Many libraries, in the region and across the country, are still isolating returned books for a day or more, saying the practice helps staff and patrons feel safer.
The community room in the Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library used to be an event space, but since last year it’s been a book purgatory, tables piled high with returned materials that sit waiting until they are deemed safe for the next reader.
Though returned books were once quarantined for days, District Administrator Karen DeAngelo said most libraries in the county are now holding them for only 24 hours.
She also acknowledged that science suggests the threat of catching the coronavirus from a borrowed book is low.
“We know this rule is really for the comfort level of the staff and patrons,” she said, noting that most returns remain at the library for at least a day anyway before being checked out again. “But maybe you’ve never seen anyone sneeze on a book. Perception is reality, and being able to do something that helps people feel safe is important.”
As vaccinations increase and case numbers dwindle, many of the restrictions that defined daily life for the last year will fall away. But for some, there’s no guarantee that the new habits or the heightened awareness of germs that took hold during the pandemic will go as easily. And a library is a community hub, a place where people of different ages are meant to gather and share things from person to person.
“One of our concerns was that people hold books closer to them than they do other things,” said Kathryn Brown, assistant director of the Ocean City Free Public Library, which recently reduced its book quarantine period from five to three days. “People like to take their books to bed, have them close to their faces. Especially with the kids’ materials: Kids like to hug their books.”
Much was unknown about the transmission of COVID-19 when the nation shut down last year, and initial research indicated the virus remained on surfaces for days. Some people disinfected groceries and left mail untouched for days, or longer.
By May 2020, the CDC was saying surface transmission was not driving infections of COVID-19. The Atlantic coined the term hygiene theater, arguing that focusing on disinfection provided a false sense of security because the virus was spreading primarily through airborne droplets from the breath, coughs, and sneezes of infected people.
But libraries didn’t race to return to normal operations. In March 2020, the American Library Association had recommended that libraries nationwide close to protect staff and patrons. Many kept their buildings closed, content to rely on book bins, pickup by appointment, and digital lending. And since the early days of the pandemic , libraries throughout the country have placed returned books in quarantine for anywhere from three to 14 days to prevent the spread of the virus.
Despite last month’s updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggest infection from surface transmission is unlikely , many libraries are still doing it — including those in New York City and Chicago, and even some in fully reopened states like Florida and Texas.
The Free Library of Philadelphia this week ended its long-standing policy of holding back books for seven days, with a spokesperson citing guidance from the Department of Public Health and the updated CDC data.
In Camden County, library director Linda Devlin said she discussed the three-day quarantine policy with staff and got permission from the county health department to end it a month ago.
“All of these restrictions go against everything a librarian is made of,” she said. “We want people to have access to information. We want to remove barriers to that. Holding back books, this all went against every fiber of our being. But we had no choice. We had to keep people safe.”
The pandemic hit when the book lenders were already facing existential challenges. More than one billion people visited libraries in 2019, according to the ALA, but that number is actually falling in recent years as facilities and staff have been stretched thin by declining funding.
As the first wave of the pandemic eased, librarians — by nature accustomed to gathering information — started developing their own reopening guidelines.
Many opened book drops first, and in Camden County, Devlin said libraries immediately received a flood of returns. Staff bought wheeled bins to sort the books, and labeled them by date to keep track of when they were returned. Other branches outlined squares on the floor with tape and grouped books in piles. Employees wore gloves, and some devised a system of lifting books out of drop boxes using tarps to further minimize contact.
Quarantining books added to librarians’ workloads, and at times caused delays for would-be borrowers, particularly for popular books with long waiting lists. And by summer, libraries nationwide were facing a record demand for reading material . E-book lending shot up by 50%, according to one major digital distributor . Meanwhile, many already struggling libraries face funding cuts due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.
At a time when many children weren’t in school, DeAngelo said Montgomery County’s libraries tried to make up for the lack of access to browsing shelves by delivering extra books to kids when they made curbside pickups. That was in addition to virtual programming like story hours and book discussion groups for older patrons on Zoom.
“The libraries never closed,” DeAngelo said. “The doors closed, but we have always been here.”
Many libraries took their lead on quarantining books from the REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project, a series of experiments funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that provides grants and research, to identify the risk of transmission on library materials.
While the REALM studies found the virus is viable for only a day on some hardcover or softcover books, they also found traces on plastic book coverings after three days. Nonporous materials, like children’s board books, DVDs, and magazines, retained traces longer.
Brianne Barker, a professor at Drew University in New Jersey who teaches virology and immunology, lauded the methodology of the REALM studies but said the research didn’t match real life. The COVID-19 virus degrades quickly on surfaces, she said, and any traces that remain are unlikely to lead to infection even if a book is returned to a library, then immediately checked back out.
“It’s not clear that there would be enough to actually transmit to someone,” she said. “I’d have to watch you lick the book and then walk over and lick it myself.”
Is it possible to catch a virus from a book? Maybe, Barker said, but probably not this virus. Since COVID-19 is less environmentally stable than some, people are more likely to pick it up from frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs and keyboards than from covers of the latest best sellers.
» READ MORE: Wiping surfaces is fine for the coronavirus, but the main risk is through the air. How to tell if your ventilation is OK.
Since libraries reopened, staff have addressed safety concerns by asking for PPE , disinfecting surfaces, requiring masks, and limiting the number of patrons allowed in buildings. Like outdoor mask-wearing , which is up for debate amid evolving guidelines , quarantining books is a habit that some are reluctant to break.
Brown, in Ocean City, said the facility decided to shorten the quarantine time after the latest CDC guidance. She expects they will make more changes as long as local case numbers keep falling. Montgomery County is adopting the same stance, DeAngelo said.
Devlin, of Camden County, also monitored the research on surface transmission in order to develop quarantine guidelines, but reached a different conclusion.
“As time went on, we started to wonder more and more if it was necessary,” she said. “I started asking, Do we know enough now that we can stop doing this?”
When the policy lifted, she said, there was a lot of relief.
“We were really eager to get those books out of the bins,” she said, “and back to the shelves where they belong.”
How to make a one-page book
Place your print-out in front of you, blank side facing up. Use clean, dry hands and a clean work surface to achieve the best results.
Fold the paper in half so that the two longest edges meet. Carefully align those edges and crease your fold.
Open the sheet of paper so that it is once again in front of you with the blank side facing up.
Fold the paper in half so that the two shortest edges meet. Carefully align those edges and crease your fold.
Open the sheet of paper again. Your paper should appear to be divided into four equal sections.
Align the shortest edges of the paper with the central fold. These edges should just touch one another, meeting in the horizontal center of the paper. Crease.
Open the paper flat and fold it in half so the two shortest edges meet with the print-out showing. Use scissors to cut from the middle of the folded edge through to the crease. Stop cutting at the crease.
Open the sheet of paper flat. Your paper should appear to be divided into eight equal sections with a slit in the middle of the paper.
Pick up the paper with the print-out showing. Fold it in half the long way.
Holding the folded paper from the outer edges, push in gently until the slit opens. Keep pushing so the middle folds pop out and flatten. Your book should appear to have four equal (double-layered) sections.
Find the front and back images of the book—those are the covers. Fold it shut.
Read and enjoy your 8-page book.
All Quarantine Public Library documents are sized to exactly 8.5 x 11" (standard letter size). This means we’ve already accounted for the margins on standard home printers—in other words, you won’t need to scale down any of our books to print them.
Printer settings vary widely, but we recommend starting with “fit to paper.” This language might look different on your device; “scale to media” and “print to scale (100%)” are other common options. It’s generally best to avoid “fit to print,” which will scale down the artwork and create an additional margin.
Have an idea for a one-page artist’s book?
Use this pagination template as a guide to help sequence your own design.
Show us the finished result
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The best disinfectant for library materials is time
For book borrowers, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised some concerns: What are the best ways to disinfect a book or other items typically found in library collections?
The best disinfectant—according to conservators—is “time.”
The University Libraries are placing all patron returns in quarantine for 96 hours, says Acting Preservation Manager Megan Lambert.
“We can’t treat every crevice of a bound book,” said Lambert. “Giving returned items some time will be the most effective way to treat our items in the long run.”
This action observes the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and recent reports from the Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project.
The REALM project is spearheaded by experts from the OCLC , the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Battelle to test the longevity of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—on different types of paper and plastic.
The outcome of two laboratory tests found that when held at standard room temperature and humidity conditions, commonly circulated library materials such as hardcover books, paperback books and DVDs in plastic cases showed no traces of SARS-CoV-2 after 24 hours in quarantine.
However, when items are left in a stacked configuration to mimic common storage conditions like shelved books or a pile of magazines, traces of SARS-CoV-2 could linger on different types of paper and plastic for up to four days.
By the time patrons arrive to pick up requests from Norlin Library, the items have gone through quarantine. When rotating items in and out of quarantine, libraries personnel are wearing face masks, washing their hands before and after handling collections materials and labeling item carts with the dates and times they were last handled.
Just as the libraries are monitoring the safety of materials for patrons, the libraries are also monitoring commonly circulated materials for deterioration. Conservator Hillary Morgan urges borrowers not to wash library items with soap and water or apply disinfectants to them.
“There is no guaranteed way to apply a chemical treatment like alcohol-based wipes or a Lysol spray to a book that isn’t going to cause a reaction,” Morgan said.
Morgan also urges borrowers not to use UV ray exposure as a means of sterilizing library materials. This includes microwaving books or leaving them out in the sun for an extended period of time. When borrowers arrive at the west entrance of Norlin for contactless pickup , they will find their items paper bagged in order to avoid the unnecessary handling of requests. Items may be returned at the book drops located at Norlin’s east and west entrances, at the Gemmill Library book drop or by mail. The libraries are also working with other public and academic libraries in Colorado to provide patrons with access to additional drop off points, because the libraries know your time is valuable.
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Why there's no consensus on library book quarantines
Books in pandemic purgatory sit for days, sometimes a week — or not at all, depending on your library.
Books and other library items across the province are sitting in quarantine — because of guidance from the Alberta government.
The province suggests returned items sit in a dedicated space for 72 hours before they are handled by employees or are returned to shelves for the public to access. This was done because of the concern that high-touch items and surfaces can act as COVID-19 spreading vehicles.
But as the pandemic progresses, there's a growing conversation across the world about whether or not it's necessary for books to be put on a time-out, and if so, how long these objects should be set aside.
Early on in the pandemic, experts talked a lot about the importance of good hand hygiene, covering your mouth with an elbow to stifle a cough or sneeze, and sanitizing often when coming into contact with high touch surfaces.
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Now, the province has recognized that indoor settings where people are breathing in close proximity are one of the primary concerns because more evidence points to aerosol transmission as a big factor in the spread of COVID-19.
The Calgary Public Library will always follow the local recommendations, but CEO Mark Asberg says they are watching a conversation unfold in the library and archive communities across the world.
He sees a trend toward reducing or even eliminating this pandemic step.
"Generally, the trend is to reduce quarantine or remove it," he said. "At this point here in Alberta, we are following the public health guidance that's available to us."
Currently, at any given time, there are tens of thousands of books from the Calgary Public Library collection sitting in a 72-hour quarantine.
B.C. no longer requiring a book quarantine
According to the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, libraries are no longer required to quarantine items.
"There is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted via textbooks, paper or other paper-based products," reads the BC CDC website. "Laminated or glossy paper-based products (e.g., magazines and children's books) and items with plastic covers (e.g., DVDs) can be contaminated if handled by a person with COVID-19; however, the risk of transmission between users of borrowed items is very low."
Instead of quarantining or focusing efforts on disinfecting books, the BC CDC wants libraries to ensure they maintain physical distance between workers and patrons while providing supplies to ensure staff and customers can wash their hands.
Some libraries increasing time books sit untouched
But not all branches think eliminating or reducing book quarantines is the answer. Some, including the Canmore Public Library, have opted to increase book purgatory — and up their quarantine to seven days.
Michelle Preston is the director of the Canmore Library.
She said they have been following the REopening Archives, Libraries and Museums (REALM) project. The study produces science-based information to help inform how to handle materials and mitigate COVID-19 exposure to staff and visitors in libraries, archives and museums.
"We have no control over what people do when they handle the materials in their home. Are they washing their hands? How many people are touching them?" Preston said. "Are they sneezing, coughing, breathing on them? It's not the primary way of transmission from what we understand, but it is a possibility."
Balancing service with safety
At this time, she feels seven days is a good comfort level to be safe. But, of course, it does impact how quickly library users can access books.
Asberg said the Calgary library system is watching this conversation unfold. He hopes soon they will see the day when a book quarantine isn't necessary.
"I think it's better for patrons, it's better for the library operations, in order to not have to quarantine," Asberg said. "I am confident one day we will get there. It's about, again, reaching that shared understanding of what the evidence is and following the public health guidance available to us."
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