Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, two of the most pressing questions for libraries have been how to safely handle materials and reopen library facilities.
Over the past several months, however, evolving safety guidelines, seemingly contradictory scientific studies and public disagreement between scientists have created confusion for libraries and patrons alike. As Teri Sforza writes in the Orange County Register:
“Fierce debate among experts — which typically plays out in journals and at conferences, largely beyond the glare of the public eye — now unfolds on Twitter and cable TV. Hot-off-the-presses studies are published online the second they’re complete, available for all on prepublication sites before the traditional vetting and peer review. Some eager for the spotlight promote themselves with shameless abandon…and cast doubt, on the work of experts.”
For library staff members, many of whom have formal education in information science, this uncertainty has been particularly challenging.
“I started to get very frustrated,” said Erin Berman, a librarian with the Alameda County Library, who recently spoke with Wired magazine. “I’m thinking, ‘We’re librarians. We should be doing research.’ Of all the industries, we should not be operating in fear.”
Berman is not alone. Many within the library community are asking similar questions: How should libraries balance the need to minimize virus transmission with challenges posed by quarantining library materials? If materials should be quarantined, then for how long? The REALM Project — a partnership between OCLC, Inc., the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Battelle, a nonprofit science and technology firm —has been attempting to help answer these questions since early spring with mixed results.
Since June, the group has conducted five laboratory experiments and multiple literature reviews to assess how long the SARS-CoV-2 virus remains detectable on a variety of library materials and surfaces. While the results provide data that can assist library decision making, the “project is not giving recommendations or guidance,” which has understandably left many libraries wondering how best to move forward.
During a recent webinar hosted by California Libraries Learn (CALL), Sharon Streams, REALM project director for OCLC, said that scientists and experts also wish that they were able to provide more definitive guidance.
“If you feel befuddled, or frustrated, or confused, and a little bit struggling to make decisions, that's actually normal,” said Streams. “It’s really about being thoughtful, but also talking with others, talking to your peers, listening, getting a lot of input and just doing the best you can.”
What real risk do objects and surfaces pose?
As additional studies have examined the likelihood of transmission from objects and surfaces, experts have also begun asking whether simply detecting a virus on a book or DVD case is sufficient justification for quarantining materials.
“For me, the question is, where are the low-risk areas where we can ease off the gas now that we know more about how transmission happens—which is overwhelmingly from being together in indoor environments?” said Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, who also spoke with Wired. “It’s not from a book that somebody sneezed on and brought to the library a week ago.”
Although additional research is ongoing, Marcus’ assertion is backed up by multiple studies, which show that contaminated surfaces or materials likely pose a low risk for virus transmission. When considering studies conducted by REALM and others, it's important to remember that just because a virus is detectable does not mean that it is likely to infect someone under real-world conditions. Factors such as sunlight, humidity, temperature and frequent hand washing will all affect the likelihood that COVID-19 is spread from objects or surfaces.
“In my opinion, the chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small, and only in instances where an infected person coughs or sneezes on the surface, and someone else touches that surface soon after the cough or sneeze (within 1–2 hours),” writes Emanuel Goldman, a professor with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “I do not disagree with erring on the side of caution, but this can go to extremes not justified by the data…[Items that] have not been in contact with an infected carrier for many hours do not pose a measurable risk of transmission in non-hospital settings.”
The World Health Organization also notes that there have been “no specific reports” that have directly shown transmission from surfaces. While it is possible for someone to get COVID-19 from touching a surface in a hospital room, office or vehicle shared with an infected person, evidence of surface transmission alone is scant. By comparison, the evidence for person-to-person transmission is robust, with proximity, duration of exposure and poor air circulation all appearing to significantly increase risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Transmission of coronavirus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through objects and surfaces, like doorknobs, countertops, keyboards, toys, etc.” Even still, it's important to remember that these high-touch surfaces continue to pose varying degrees of risk. A door handle or touchscreen used for self-checkouts, for example, pose a great risk than a single book or magazine, simply by virtue of how often they are touched.
Ensuring that people feel safe inside the library is also an important goal. When deciding whether to quarantine materials or how frequently to clean surfaces, libraries should take the time to talk with staff and volunteers about their own comfort levels. Decisions guided by science should still take into account the needs of the library community.
What should libraries do?
After months of scientific research, a consensus is emerging:
Checked out library materials are unlikely to be a source of COVID-19 infections. If libraries chose to quarantine materials, 72 hours is likely sufficient to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. The decision to quarantine books, DVDs and other library materials should be made in consultation with local public health officials and with local library communities.
High-touch surfaces should be cleaned regularly, following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Environmental Protection Agency
Library staff, volunteers and patrons should wear masks, wash hands frequently and maintain physical distance of six feet or more. Apart from more aggressive distancing, these measures appear to be the most successful interventions at reducing the spread of COVID-19.
Libraries should rearrange desks, computer workstations and seating areas to ensure six feet or more of physical distance between patrons and staff.
Poorly ventilated indoor spaces clearly pose a higher risk then being outdoors or in a well-ventilated space. Libraries should limit the number of staff, patrons and volunteers inside of library facilities, based on local guidelines.
In the coming months, further scientific study will likely yield additional insights about how to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Libraries should consult regularly with public health officials and defer to local guidelines. As a trusted source of information, libraries should also actively promote public health guidance through their newsletters, email lists and social media posts.
For more information on libraries and COVID-19, visit:
Note that some of the links below contain guidance that was written in spring or early summer, based on preliminary scientific research. Make sure to check dates for the most up-to-date information.
REALM's COVID-19 considerations checklist includes things for libraries to think about when determining how to handle materials and reopen facilities
California State Library’s Guide to Restoring In-Person Services
California Library Association’s extensive list of COVID-19 resources
California Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 resource page
CDC’s Strategies for Protecting K-12 School Staff (many of which apply to libraries)