Update on REALM Partnership Test Results

UPDATE 9/10/20:  On September 3, the REALM project published the results of the fourth round of Battelle’s laboratory testing for COVID-19 on five materials common to archives, libraries, and museums. Results show that after six days of quarantine the SARS-CoV-2 virus was still detected on all five materials tested. When compared to Test 1, which resulted in nondetectable virus after three days on an unstacked hardcover book, softcover book, plastic protective cover, and DVD case, the results of Test 4 highlight the effect of stacking and its ability to prolong the survivability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.




IMLS, OCLC, and Battelle Memorial Institute logos

On April 22, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) announced a research partnership with OCLC and Battelle Memorial Institute to investigate best practices for handling paper- and plastic-based, circulating, and other types of collection materials in light of concerns about COVID-19 contamination, and offer guidelines for libraries and museums as they plan for reopening.

The new partnership will enable a collaborative research effort among IMLS, global library cooperative OCLC, and Battelle Memorial Institute, a private nonprofit science and technology development institution in Columbus, OH. Battelle has been working on several COVID-19–related research projects, and recently deployed a system to decontaminate N95 respirator masks with the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island, to help meet the needs of frontline healthcare workers. Other contributors to the partnership include the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

Although the final say about when to begin the process of reopening will lie with state and municipal officials, many employers and workers have already expressed concerns over when, and whether, it is safe to reopen—and what kind of guidelines will be available to help them make decisions.

“Results from this collaborative research are anticipated to help understand and mitigate the impact of the virus by curating and developing information on how to handle materials,” a press release from IMLS stated.

“Managing inventory and handling materials is a daily function of collecting institutions across America and the globe,” said IMLS Director Crosby Kemper in a statement. “The challenge of working with collections is compounded by inconclusive information on how the virus survives on surfaces and how—or if—different types of materials can be handled to mitigate exposure.”

In a March 30 webinar, “Mitigating COVID-19 When Managing Paper-Based, Circulating, and Other Types of Collections,” IMLS invited speakers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to address concerns about handling paper- and cardboard-based materials. Their takeaway is that paper was a low concern when it came to virus transmission, requiring at most a 24-hour quarantine. However, not all library materials are paper-based—library books usually have board covers or are coated in plastic, and other materials, such as DVDs, tablets, and laptops, are made of nonporous surfaces where the virus can survive for much longer. The IMLS webinar recommended treating these with disinfectants. However, several commenters on Twitter pointed out that promoting the relative safety of paper-based materials could camouflage the risks faced by library workers asked to oversee curbside pickups or drive-through checkouts, or even pick up books from a book drop. A focus on materials does not address the risks from exposure to patrons, other staff, library buildings, and public transportation if applicable.

“These unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures to protect people,” said OCLC President and CEO Skip Prichard in a statement. “Working with IMLS and Battelle, OCLC will be able to provide libraries and museums with the best research available to determine best practices for handling collections materials, and protecting the health and safety of staff and the communities they serve.”

“As library systems, museums, and similar institutions across the United States plan for their reopening, an enhanced understanding of how to apply best practices in the context of local officials’ guidance is absolutely essential in mitigating risk to employees in handling collections and engaging with the public,” said Kemper. “This project will likely not answer all the concerns around reopening, nor will it supersede community health guidance. However, it is part of a larger effort to help the more than 140,000 libraries and museums across the country.”

More details, as well as the anticipated timeline of results and information, will be available in the coming week. For the latest updates, subscribe to IMLS news and visit imls.gov/coronavirus.

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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