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Safe Handling of Physical Library Materials

Quarantine of library materials is the most effective known method of disinfection.1

The Association for Library Collections and Technical Services' website Handling Library Materials and Collections During a Pandemic includes COVID-19 information and resources on handling library collections.

It is up to the individual library to decide the duration of quarantine for each material type. Suggested quarantine periods for paper-based materials (such as books) range from 24 hours2 to 120 hours3 (1 to 5 days). Suggested quarantine periods for non-paper-based library materials (such as plastic-covered books, CDs, DVDs, etc.) range from 72 hours4 to 216 hours5 (3 to 9 days).

It is recommended that libraries set up an area of the building as a materials isolation zone for those items that may have recently been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. This area could be a cleared range of shelving, a series of multiple book carts, or even piles of books on a table.

Materials should be labeled with dates of when those items entered quarantine and when they are safe to be re-shelved. Courier totes and bins may also be considered for quarantine.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), OCLC, and Battelle are collaborating to create and distribute science-based information and recommended practices designed to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to museum, library, or archival services' staff and visitors. The project's website, Reopening Archives, Libraries and Museums (REALM), provides updates, a research timeline, webinars, and resources. Sign up to receive REALM project updates by email.

REALM Data

The REALM studies released to date help libraries to better understand the virus from scientific study to consider and adapt safety precautions designed for local communities: 

  • Local libraries can determine what changes, if any, they will make in response to Test 4 results that indicated stacked books may retain the virus longer than initially thought and the Test 5 results that address book cover surfaces. Please continue to choose a quarantine period that best suits your community and your staff. Information shared with OCL indicates that most libraries appear to have adopted a system of quarantining returns on carts or in bins for 3-7 days. As noted in the June 5 guidance from OCL, each library is responsible for deciding the nature and duration of quarantine for each material type.
  • Libraries should consider their risk tolerance levels. There is no data on how many virus cells a COVID-19 positive patron may leave on a library material. The items tested in this study were scientifically treated with the virus; it is not an actual case of how real patrons may pass the virus particles to materials.
  • Everyone must accept that there will continue to be uncertainty during this pandemic. The five simple rules for managing uncertainty in a pandemic may help.

To date, Office of Commonwealth Libraries is not aware of any library where suspected transmission of COVID-19 could be traced to borrowed library materials or to library use by patrons.

On October 14, the REALM project released its Phase 2 Systematic Literature Review. This review includes analysis and summary of findings from available scientific literature on SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) since the Phase 1 review (mid-May through mid-August 2020.) This review focused on studies of how the virus is spread, virus attenuation on commonly found materials, and effectiveness of prevention and decontamination measures. Below are some key takeaways.

How the Virus Spreads 

  • Droplets. SARS-CoV-2 is generally understood to spread primarily through virus-containing water droplets expelled from infected persons from sneezes, coughs, speaking, and other respiratory activities. Evidence has also suggested that other pathways for spreading the virus may include:
    • Aerosols. Breathing air that the virus is suspended in, such as after an aerosolization event (e.g., a sneeze).
    • Fomites. Touching surfaces of objects where the virus has been deposited (sometimes called fomites), which can occur through exhaling or otherwise depositing virus-containing droplets on the surface.
  • Environment. Environmental factors, including temperature and humidity, have been identified as influential in the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Specifically, higher temperatures, higher humidity, and increased intensity of ultraviolet (UV) light (e.g., sunlight) seem to lead to SARS-CoV-2 decaying more quickly. However, additional research is needed to understand the complexities of these variables’ impact on the virus and its transmission.
  • Ventilation. Some evidence has suggested that HVAC systems and other air circulation mechanisms can contribute to spreading the virus through the air. On the other hand, poor ventilation may also lead to airborne virus remaining in indoor environments longer. However, the impact of these systems on people contracting the virus requires further study.
  • Surfaces. Very few studies from the review period reported novel empirical research about the survival of SARS-CoV-2 on surfaces, which highlights the REALM lab results’ contribution toward this area of investigation.

Prevention and Decontamination

Researchers suggested several options for reducing the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in environments, which may help prevent transmission among people in those environments:

  • Frequent handwashing or hand sanitizing 
  • Wearing a mask that covers the mouth and nose 
  • Social distancing and reduced indoor occupancy 
  • Good air ventilation and open/outdoor spaces 
  • Applying certain forms of UV light or increased heat 
  • Applying disinfectants to contaminated surfaces and objects.

1Kampf, G., Todt, D., Pfaender, S., Steinmann, E., "Persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces and their inactivation with biocidal agents." The Journal of Hospital Infection. February 6, 2020.

While The Journal of Hospital Infection article also tests the effects of various disinfectants on the novel coronavirus, these chemicals are not safe to use on library and historic materials. There is no evidence or studies to suggest that expensive "book sterilization" or "book disinfection" equipment is effective or will not cause unnecessary damage to collections. Even methods for UV sterilization have not been standardized.

2Institute for Museum and Library Services. Mitigating COVID-19 When Managing Paper-Based, Circulating, and Other Types of Collections. March 30, 2020.

3Striegel, M., "COVID-19 Basics: Disinfecting Cultural Resources." National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, National Parks Service. March 25, 2020.

4Northeast Document Conservation Center, "Disinfecting Books and Other Collections." March 26, 2020.

5Kampf, G., Todt, D., Pfaender, S., Steinmann, E., "Persistence of coronaviruses."