FAQ About Libraries and the Coronavirus

Page updated 6/22/2020

Please note: ILA cannot give medical or legal advice. Decision-making at an individual library should always be done in consultation with a medical or legal professional.

Q: Can the virus live on surfaces? If so, for how long, and can it be transmitted from person to person in this manner, by touching a book, counter, or a computer keyboard that has been handled by someone who is infected?
A: 6/22/2020 update: Results from the first phase of the REALM Project conducted by IMLS with OCLC and Battelle to study the viability of COVID-19 on library materials have been released, indicating no viability on a number of types of materials after three days. 
3/27/2020 update: Recent discussion online has referred to the possibility of COVID-19 "living" on surfaces for up to 17 days. The CDC's report on this topic, (updated March 26) focuses on research done on cruise ships on which passengers were infected and notes that RNA strands of the virus were detected on surfaces after 17 days, not the living virus itself. It has not been shown that anyone can contract the virus after touching a contaminated surface after 17 days, but that question is not what the research was designed to answer. Please remember that this is a novel coronavirus and much is still not known; we will share research as it becomes available; but the research is in progress itself. 
3/18/2020 update:
 Library and museum-specific advice for collections from Coordinated Statewide Emergency Preparedness in Massachusetts (COSTEP MA).
3/17/2020 update
NIH article citing this research.
3/16/2020 update:
According to preliminary research, the virus remained detectable "up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel." If libraries have space available, it is suggested to leave returned materials in quarantine for at least three days, in addition to commonsense and widely publicized general good health practice recommendations to wash hands frequently and wipe down surfaces with antiseptic wipes, and having staff responsible for receiving returned materials wear surgical gloves.
According to the National Library of Medicine, "It might be possible to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching your own mouth, nose, or possibly your eyes. But this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads." Libraries can consider this guidance developed by the CDC for polling places, specifically with regard to shared public electronic equipment. The CDC notes "Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus has not been documented. Transmission of coronavirus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through contact with contaminated surfaces."    

Q: We are considering utilizing a spray disinfectant, similar to a "bug bomb," in the stacks. Will this damage our books and other materials?
A: Always consult the maker of any sprays or other substances you intend to use on books, materials, furniture, and carpets. 3/16/2020 update: Advice shared in an electronic forum hosted by the Society of American Archivists, from that group's Preservation Section: "We should definitely avoid getting bleach or other disinfecting products on books as the moisture as well as harsh chemicals can cause damage to the paper. Instead of spraying bookshelves directly, cleaning solutions should be applied to a cloth or paper towel and then the surface can be wiped down. Care should be taken not to spray the books by accident." SAA cited the preliminary research also noted above, saying "Note that the virus can only live on surfaces for a few days, so books returned to the library could be quarantined for a short period rather than cleaned."

Q: As employers, library directors can tell staff who display symptoms to stay home. Can library staff bar patrons who appear ill?
A:  At a fundamental level, libraries cannot bar patrons arbitrarily, and librarians are not trained to serve a medical diagnostic role. If there is widespread concern about ill patrons, the library can consider closing. Before that step is taken, educate patrons about ways to avoid spreading germs; make hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and soap and hot water available for them to use; and consider posting signs encouraging people experiencing symptoms to stay home.

Q: I've heard that UV light disinfecting devices can kill COVID-19 that may be living on library books or other materials. Is this true?
A: At this time, we don't know for sure if libraries are successfully using UV light devices to disinfect items. However, there have been reports of such devices being used in hospital settings for disinfecting purposes. These devices seem to be built for large premises, rather than the type of targeted disinfection that would likely be necessary for books and other library materials. There are smaller UV light disinfection devices available, but as of 3/23/20, the World Health Organization has not confirmed whether these devices fully eliminate the new coronavirus.

Have a question? Please contact ILA Executive Director Diane Foote and we'll do our best to find out. Have an answer? Let us know!

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