IMLS, CDC: On Staff Safety, Handling Paper In COVID-19 Pandemic

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) hosted a webinar on Monday, March 30, “Mitigating COVID-19 When Managing Paper-Based, Circulating, and Other Types of Collections.” 

IMLS and CDC logosAdvice abounds on how to treat and disinfect high-touch, nonporous objects such as doorknobs, keyboards, and cell phones to help slow transmission of the novel coronavirus. But for workers in libraries, archives, and other institutions who handle paper and books, there are fewer guidelines, and whether it is possible to continue practices such as curbside or drive-through circulation, processing returns, or digitizing materials via on-site staff is hotly debated in the field.

To help address these concerns, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) hosted a webinar on Monday, March 30, “Mitigating COVID-19 When Managing Paper-Based, Circulating, and Other Types of Collections.” It was presented in coordination with the U.S. Department of Education, National Archives and Records Administration, Smithsonian Institution, and Library of Congress, and moderated by IMLS Director Crosby Kemper, the hourlong webinar featured speakers David Berendes, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch, and Catherine Rasberry, health scientist in CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health.

IMLS “has been requested by the White House and Congress to be a part of the all-hands-on-deck emergency response to our national crisis,” Kemper noted in his introduction.



“You don't have to really worry about finding ways to disinfect those materials,” Berendes noted. “The virus, if it's present, would be present in very low quantities and would die off pretty quickly.”

What about a recently published study, which caused consternation in the library and museum world, showing survival of the virus on paper-based products for as long as 24 hours? asked Kemper.

The study is valid, said Berendes, but it was conducted under ideal lab conditions, and doesn’t necessarily replicate how the virus would react after casual handling. “For us to have been concerned about transmission from any paper-based material, the individual would have had to cough or sneeze directly on the object,” he explained.

“We're pretty sure that, with some regularity, people are sneezing onto our books,” responded Kemper.

In that case, Berendes recommended leaving books untouched for a 24-hour period before handling them. Of the many concerns library workers should have about the materials they handle, however, paper is fairly low on the list, he said. “We would just emphasize that the staff practice good hand hygiene after touching the books “For DVDs or other materials that are more easily cleaned…those are pretty easily wipeable with alcohol wipes,” Berendes continued. Materials in Braille usually have plastic coatings that can be wiped down with alcohol-based cleaners.



Of course, materials are far from the only risk for library staff in continuing even modified on-site work. Exposure to common surfaces, colleagues, patrons during handoffs, and the commute are all factors as well. Rasberry, who is currently helping with CDC’s community guidance development team as part of a community interventions task force, started off by noting that often the categories for cultural institutions can be blurry when it comes to mitigation best practices. CDC has developed guidance for community and faith-based organizations, as well as for community events, mass gatherings, and businesses. “I think you’re sort of crossing all those different areas in the work that you do,” she said, and suggested that library and archives workers consult recommendations for all of those instances (available on the IMLS Coronavirus (COVID-19) Updates webpage) as a starting point.

Another useful place to start, said Rasberry, is to look at Emergency Operations Plans that may already exist for your institution—and update them if necessary. Your first and primary point of contact should be the health officials in your own community; make sure the lines of communication between your institution and your local health department are open, she advised. “They're going to be critical for you to help you understand what types of strategies are most appropriate given the level of community transmission where you are,” and will be key partners when it’s time to reopen.

Cultural institutions should encourage remote work wherever possible, evaluate sick leave policies, and work to accommodate staff who are at high risk or caring for sick family members.

If workers or visitors are using the building, Rasberry added, make sure there is posted signage about distancing and handwashing, and plenty of soap, drying materials, and tissues—plus trash cans nearby. Rearrange furniture, if need be, to ensure that people can stay six feet apart. Have a plan in place for what to do if someone on the premises is, or becomes, symptomatic, such as a designated space and transportation options. If people are congregating outside the facility to use the Wi-Fi, Rasberry strongly emphasized talking with local health officials to ascertain what is allowed under a shelter-in-place order, if the library’s locale has one.



Berendes took the mic to discuss environmental cleaning and disinfection. First and foremost, he said, clean and disinfect hard, high-touch surfaces, such as railings, doorknobs, faucets, light switches, where the virus can survive the longest. He suggested doing a routine cleaning and disinfection at least once a day, or more often if possible. (A link to information on disinfectants from the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] can also be found on the IMLS COVID-19 webpage.)

If a staff member or guest is discovered to be symptomatic, or they become symptomatic while in the facility, he seconded Rasberry’s suggestion to isolate them in a designated space and then, once they’ve left, close off the area as long as is practical—ideally up to 24 hours—to allow for any respiratory droplets in the air to settle out. In most library settings the existing ventilation will clear the air sooner, he added. Open doors and windows, if possible, and after 24 hours all hard surfaces can be cleaned with detergent or soap and water and then disinfected. Janitorial staff should wear the appropriate protective equipment for the cleaning substances being used, but after 24 hours they do not need to wear COVID-specific coverings.

For porous surfaces such as carpeted floors, rugs, or drapes, consult the EPA’s list for the appropriate cleaner, but also remember that the virus can’t survive long on soft surfaces. “Once it’s in a fabric, it’s probably going to die off there,” said Berendes. “It’s not going to re-aerosolize and get into individuals’ lungs.”

IMLS’s coordination with the CDC will be ongoing, noted Kemper, and the agency will keep updates current on its website. A recording and transcript of the webinar are available on the site as well.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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Carol Johnson

This article was very informative. It gave me some insight on how things should be when I return to work.

Thank You

Posted : Apr 29, 2020 09:51

Laura Barnes

Thank you for the update info on the reopening of the library.

Posted : Apr 20, 2020 07:11

Aretha Kendrick

I'm so glad to know that these topics are being discuss as we prepare to return back. These practices will become the new normal way of our work day. My questions are one of computer trainings within our branches and recieving information. We often have patrons come in with little computer experience and need one on one assistance ⁹which usually requires library staff to be close and personal. Have any consideration been thought into the way we conduct resume trainings, self checkouts help, recieving patrons ID as proof of residency to process new memberships, and assisting with the public copier, etc.

Posted : Apr 17, 2020 01:51

Kellie Rybarczyk

The thing I worry about are the board books we have for babies and toddlers. They are more vulnerable because they put the books in their mouths.

Posted : Apr 10, 2020 09:44



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