Libraries, Archives, and Museums Donate PPE to Healthcare Frontlines Combating COVID-19

With their on-site, physical work temporarily on hold during the coronavirus outbreak, conservators and other museum, library, and archive workers have started a grassroots movement to collect and donate their supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to healthcare workers on the front lines of their work with COVID-19 patients.

two health care workers in hospital setting with protective suits and masksWith their on-site, physical work temporarily on hold during the coronavirus outbreak, conservators and other museum, library, and archive workers have started a grassroots movement to collect and donate their supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to healthcare workers on the front lines.

For conservators and preservationists, wearing PPE is part of the job for several reasons. "One is to protect themselves from the objects in the collection. For example, if the object has mold or contains arsenic. We also use PPE to protect the objects from us," said Anisha Gupta, assistant conservator for archival materials at the American Philosophical Society's Library and Museum in Philadelphia.

"About two weeks ago, I started reading about how hospitals in the United States were inevitably going to run out of PPE. I figured it would be best to get these supplies to the right people as soon as possible, even before they were asking for them, since our lab was already working from home at this point."

In all, Gupta says the American Philosophical Society turned over hundreds of Nitrile gloves, about 100 N95 masks, coveralls, goggles, safety glasses, surface disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and bleach to the fire department, which delivered the supplies to the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management. "When you're asked to stay home and stay away from others, you start feeling helpless about what's going on around you, but this was a way for us to really do our part and provide essential supplies to healthcare workers in our community," said Gupta

A week after closing to the public, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, which also houses a research library, delivered its own supply of Nitrile gloves, Tyvek suits, and N95 masks to the North Shore Medical Center. "The day that we announced the closure we started to get emails from our staff making the suggestion that we make this donation. So our staff thought of this almost immediately," said John Childs, chief of collection services and the Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library. “It was amazing what a broad spectrum of our staff realized we had this equipment and thought that it was appropriate and really necessary that we make this donation." Security and facilities staff rounded up equipment from a number of different buildings. "It was a chance for us to do something for the Salem community, which is…the community we're here to serve but also a community that we are a part of. Most of our staff live in the city of Salem and this was just something that we really wanted to be able to do to help our community come through this horrible situation as best as we all can,” said Childs.

University library and preservation departments are also pitching in. Yale University Preservation Services Librarian Tara Kennedy said, “there was no question that we would donate, and my colleagues at other institutions, it was all instantaneous, nobody even batted an eye. They were just—here’s all the supplies we have.” With Yale’s library closed, Kennedy said security staff went around to supply closets gathering N95 masks, goggles, disposable Nitrile gloves, Tyvek coveralls and sleeve guards, along with hooded suits. The gear was delivered to Yale New Haven Hospital and Yale Health. "I know it’s the personal responsibility of every one of us to flatten the curve and stay home, and that's probably the best that any of us can do, but being able to actually supply these very much-needed supplies to our healthcare workers, to the people who are on the front lines, it means the world, it really does. I'm grateful that we were able to give those supplies in a time of need for them. I hope that it's useful and I hope it’s enough,” said Kennedy.

With one of the largest conservation and preservation science programs in the United States, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC uses a substantial amount of PPE in support of lab work and for responding to collection emergencies. Andrew Robb, head of special format conservation; conservation division; preservation directorate at the Library of Congress said, “Grace Walters, one of our paper conservation graduate interns, and Katherine Kelly, book conservator, inquired if we were considering a donation of our PPE. We were impressed by other grassroots efforts from conservators worldwide and felt we should do our part.” He says staff from the Health Services Division is now working with FEMA to distribute materials donated by the Library of Congress, which included 890 N95 masks, 1,250 pairs of Nitrile gloves, 45 Tyvek hoods, nine coveralls, 100 Tyvek hoods, 60 pairs of shoe covers, two headgear and pump respirators with HEPA filters, 14 emergency blankets, and 400 hand sanitizer packets. “We have PPE because we put safety first. Health workers need PPE to be safe and help others. Since we are staying home and teleworking, our PPE [supply] is idle. These donations will save lives and we are proud to help in this small way,” said Robb.

Public libraries are also doing their part, serving as drop-off sites for donations. In California’s Bay Area, Oakland Public Main Library repurposed its book drop bin to collect masks, taking in 200 masks so far. The plan is to keep collecting masks as long as needed. "Our branches might be closed, but people are appreciating that we are trying to help the situation we are in," said Matt Berson, public information officer for the Oakland Public LIbrary.

Using social media to spread the word, donation efforts are expanding. “We're already in a collaborative kind of field anyway, so this is just another demonstration of how collaborative we can be, and our understanding of what's needed to help others. I think a lot of our work does go in that direction anyway. We're helping to make people’s collections better, their personal items and…their family treasures and their family Bibles. We do that too. It's already kind of ingrained in us,” said Kennedy

"This is something that has sort of spontaneously bubbled up…just as we all have realized that we do have sort of a secret cache, almost, of this really critical equipment, and we're just really all happy that this is something small that we can do to contribute to getting through this tough time,” said Childs.


Kelli Brooks is a writer living in California’s Bay Area.

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