I'm seeing a lot of discussion about how libraries are modifying their services to address the COVID-19 outbreak. The obvious first step is to provide more virtual services. There are lots of lists with free online resources for kids and ways for librarians to keep learning and we've developed this website, Quarantine Librarianship, so we can identify some of the best, nationally oriented, resources, keep up with current online events pertinent to the crisis, and to offer up some good solutions and best practices. Finally, there's a discussion forum there for anyone who wants to talk about whatever! But what I haven't seen enough of, is how libraries are dealing with - and should be dealing with - physical, library material.
When dealing with library material, the first question we need to ask is how safe is it for staff to handle library returns. The answer to that question is we really don't know.
I've only found two articles that give us a clue (https://quarantinelibrarianship.org/tags/safety) and they both cite the same study, Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. From this study, we could extrapolate how long the virus might survive on the pages of a library book because it addresses how long the virus survives on cardboard. Close enough? Maybe not but that's all we've got so far!
According to a March 17, 2020 NY Times article, How Long Will Coronavirus Live on Surfaces or in the Air Around You?, the study suggests that "the virus disintegrates over the course of the day on cardboard, lessening the worry among consumers that deliveries will spread the virus..." What it means to disintegrate over the course of the day is also not well-defined but they do say this:
On cardboard, it survives up to 24 hours, which suggests packages that arrive in the mail should have only low levels of the virus — unless the delivery person has coughed or sneezed on it or has handled it with contaminated hands.
The study finds that the virus lives longest on plastic (DVD cases?) and steel, surviving up to 72 hours.
NPR published an article on March 14 citing the same study (it was in preprint at the time) entitled "The New Coronavirus Can Live On Surfaces For 2-3 Days - Here's How to Clean Them." From this article (and many others), we can learn how to disinfect hard plastic surfaces like our media cases and the outside of books. The best idea is probably a solution of at least 60% isopropyl alcohol since the other oft-cited disinfectant (bleach) is probably going to be too hard on the book covers.
But even if staff clean the covers, we've got the issue of the inside of the books. No one is going to disinfect the pages. Even with media, cleaning the case is great but the inside of the case and the media itself is also a "hard surface" and I can't imagine staff sitting around disinfecting all that.
So, what to do with returns? My recommendation is that you leave them alone for three days.
When your library closes, lock the book drops, tell people NOT to return anything, and just let everything sit for three (amount of time needed is still unclear) days. After three days of not being handled, the study suggests that the virus would not still be alive on surfaces, even hard surfaces like counters and media cases. So, after three days, staff could return to the library without having to be nervous about getting contaminated by any surfaces in the workroom or in the entire library (if you've actually kept the library unoccupied for three days).
Bookdrops could be emptied and material from there could also be checked in as long as it has been locked for at least three days.
The key to the three-day rule is not having any new exposed person or object coming into the space. So, if you have staff working in the library during closures, it will be important to follow the CDC Guidelines about sanitizing surfaces keeping 6-feet apart from other people.
But let's go a little deeper on that 6-foot rule. What staying 6 feet apart accomplishes is that it ensures that when you sneeze, your sneeze droplets don't smack your workmate in the face or anywhere else that might end up infecting them. And vice versa. But the 6-foot rule doesn't really address the airborne virus.
Going back to that NY Times article, they cite two more articles. One, entitled "Aerodynamic Characteristics and RNA Concentration of SARS-COV-2 Aerosol in Wuhan Hospitals during COVID-19 Outbreak" is not yet published. The other, published March 4, 2020 entitled "Air, Surface Environmental, and Personal Protective Equipment Contamination by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrom Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) From a Symptomatic Patient." These two articles address the degree to which the virus stays in the air. The second article focuses on conditions in hospitals where people are very sick and explains why the need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our medical professionals is so important. It has some scary findings but they aren't all that pertinent to our library situation assuming you aren't letting anyone come into the library who is showing ANY symptoms.
But even the first article, which addresses how long potentially dangerous particles stay in the air. Based on the doctor who downplayed the danger the least, Dr. Marr, it takes the virus about 34 minutes to fall from a height of six feet (sneeze height for your tallest staff?). So, while they don't think airborne transmission is likely, there haven't been enough studies to say it isn't happening at all. That's how I read the studies anyway!
Given that...how many people would you want working in your backroom checking in books? Probably just one is my answer!
Summary: If I were running a library, I would be quarantining my material for three days and also quarantining the check-in room for three days. After three days at least, I might send one person per shift to catch up on the backlog so when we start returning to normal, you don't have to start with a huge pile of returns to contend with.
If this goes on long enough this cycle could be repeated. Accept returns for some number of days and then lock the bookdrops, quarantine everything again for three days and check them in again.
I won't address check-outs in this blog post because I don't see any way to safely do that today unless you only check-out previously quarantined material. But even if you limit check-outs to "clean" material, we probably don't want to encourage people to come out of their "shelter" right now. Feel free to offer up your ideas on our Discussion Forum. I'd love to hear what you've learned that I've missed!
UPDATE MARCH 24,2020: Per this study, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e3.htm?s_cid=mm6912e3_w, the virus may be surviving much longer than 3 days on certain surfaces so a safe quarantine period is very much in question at this point. We will continue to post updates on this topic at https://quarantinelibrarianship.org/tags/safety.