Science-Based Reopening Plans in Everyday English

There is no 100 percent protection against the risk of COVID-19 aside from self-isolation, but we hope that the plans we’ve developed for re-opening our academic libraries will help you figure out how to provide the best protection for your staff and patrons.

Julie Sheppard and Kirsti Thomas in separate photos
Julie Sheppard and Kirsti S. Thomas

I’m a librarian married to a molecular biologist who’s really good at explaining science to non-scientists. This is incredibly helpful when you’re in the middle of a pandemic. Our consortium of three community colleges in Seattle, WA, gathered information from my spouse, our institution’s environmental health coordinator, and several health agencies to develop our re-opening plans. It’s been a group effort and wouldn’t have been possible without everyone’s involvement.

Of course, there is no 100 percent protection against the risk of infection aside from self-isolation, but we hope that the plans we’ve developed for re-opening our libraries will help you figure out how to provide the best protection for your staff and patrons.


We understand our plans may not be applicable to everyone’s situation. In fact, our experience shows how specific needs and situations will drive the different decisions each library makes. Our campuses range from dense urban centers to suburban settings. Even within the same city, our five libraries have different plans for re-opening.

  • One library with a very small staff is only offering remote services as long as instruction at their college remains online-only.
  • Another library supports several healthcare assistant training programs requiring in-person instruction. We need to re-open that library as soon as possible for those students.
  • Staff at another library want to be very cautious. They interacted with someone later confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19 from the Mount Vernon, WA, choir practice at which 45 of 60 choir members got sick even while following distancing guidelines.

It’s important to consider what’s best for your situation and review local and state health organizations recommendations.


In planning for re-opening, we want to prevent staff from infecting other staff, staff from infecting patrons, patrons from infecting staff, and patrons from infecting other patrons. To minimize infection risk and keep staff from being overwhelmed, we plan to re-open the libraries in phases.

Phase 1: Only staff allowed inside the building in limited numbers; specific no-contact drop off location outside the building for returns.

Phase 2: Doors locked; Patrons allowed in building via appointment only to return fragile materials (while staff stand more than six feet away); other returns use book drop.

Phase 3: Doors monitored, and limited number of people allowed into the building; restrict access to the physical collections to library staff only; social distancing and disinfecting protocols in place for public computers.

We know the two main ways we can become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 are by inhaling droplets containing the virus that someone else has breathed out in the air around us, or by touching the surface of an object that has the virus on it (maybe because someone else touched it or coughed on it), getting the virus on our hands, and touching our nose, mouth, or eyes while the virus is still on our hands. So our re-opening plans focus on how to prevent inhalation of droplets and how to prevent infection after touching a surface.


Breathing in droplets is the biggest infection risk, and that’s our main focus. We want to avoid having a lot of droplets in the air or having people so close to each other that droplets can land on someone else. The more people in an area and the longer they stay, the more droplets.

  • Limit the number of people in the building. We know that, during an outbreak, if the effective reproduction number is less than one, infection rates are declining. We don’t want to be open to the public if the effective reproduction number is greater than one.
  • Plan staff schedules. Our environmental health coordinator recommended scheduling so that the same staff share the same shifts. This limits exposure to only the personnel on a given shift. We’ll also schedule shifts to strictly limit the number of people in a room or work area. We are on a two person per shift for now.
  • Rearrange staff work areas. We’re rearranging desks and workspaces to provide six feet between all staff at all times.
  • Install plexiglass shields at all service desks. Plexiglass provides a solid barrier to block droplets, especially at service points where we may not have six feet between patrons and staff.
  • Review building ventilation with facilities. Staff were worried about virus transmission via building HVAC systems. We contacted our facilities manager who told us they’re following special ASHRAE guidelines developed for COVID-19. Communicating this to staff made everyone less worried.
  • Wear masks. Our county currently requires cloth masks in public spaces or when working with others. It’s important to understand that cloth and surgical masks keep your germs off other people. They don’t keep other people’s germs off you. Only N95 masks protect the wearers, as long they fit with a tight seal! N95 masks with a valve protect you, but not the people around you. Our administration has announced that anyone without a mask will be asked to leave campus, and security staff will enforce this policy. Our colleges are asking employees and students to provide their own masks. One library is providing two reusable cloth masks to all library staff, mailed directly to them, and recommending that staff wash the mask in hot water at the end of the day. Another library is working to provide disposable masks for staff and patrons who don’t have their own.


When multiple people handle or touch an object throughout the day, that creates a vector of contagion. We want to minimize the number of people who touch any one object and minimize the number of objects any one person touches.

  • Provide training. Library staff members will receive training on infection control and hand hygiene from licensed health care or environmental safety personnel. Our institution is providing this training for all employees and students.
  • Provide sanitizer and disinfectant. We’ll provide hand sanitizer at all entrances, near/in restrooms, and at all service desks. We make sure all sanitizer contains at least 60 percent alcohol readily available to patrons and staff, as recommended by the CDC. We'll also provide disinfectant spray, paper towels, and lidded trash cans at all service desks and shared workspaces.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently. Desks, counters, and tables need to be disinfected in between use by every person. Disinfection is a two-step process of first cleaning then disinfecting, and most disinfectants need to stay on a surface for several minutes to be effective against coronavirus. Our environmental health coordinator is training library staff on disinfection techniques. We’re also making sure we purchase disinfectants on the EPA’s list of Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 and following label directions on how to use them.
  • Quarantine materials. We’ll be quarantining all returned materials for four days, and not checking them in until after quarantine. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the virus survived up to 24 hours on cardboard and three days (72 hours) on plastic surfaces (e.g. computer keyboards, laminated book covers). We’re doing four days to provide an extra buffer. I asked my spouse about checking things in before quarantining; he said that was a bad idea.
  • We’re quarantining rather than disinfecting, like the Northeast Document Conservation Center recommends. Disinfectants can damage paper and electronics, they cost money, and they’re in limited supply. Plus, no one has time to disinfect every single page of every book. Staff who move materials into quarantined areas will wash hands immediately after.
  • Limit access to shared computers. We won’t have multiple staff using the same workstation over the course of a day. We’re agonizing over when to re-open access to our public computers. Computer keyboards are a significant risk for virus transmission if multiple people touch them repeatedly during a single day. They’re almost impossible to disinfect without damaging the electronics, and we don’t have enough keyboards to quarantine each one for three days after each user. We may use keyboard covers to make cleaning easier, or we may simply remove public workstations until this is over.
  • Wear gloves sometimes. We’re emphasizing hand-washing over constantly wearing gloves and educating our staff on the CDC’s guidelines on hand-washing. We're using gloves only when cleaning and disinfecting to protect the skin against the harsh chemicals. Remember, viruses stick to gloves just like they stick to skin! Don’t touch anything with gloves that you don’t want contaminated--like your eyes, your nose, your mouth, or your food.


We have weekly check-in meetings both for individual libraries and for all library staff. Specific staff have volunteered to keep up with recommendations from the CDC and Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) Information Hub: A COVID-19 Research Project. That ensures that as science learns more about how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we will continue to evolve our plans to be as effective as possible.

We’re still under a stay-at-home order in Washington State and closed to the public. We don’t expect our governor to allow libraries to open until later this summer. It's important to us to have re-opening plans that are workable for our different libraries and based on current science. We also know we’ll need to be flexible and adaptable going forward so we can protect ourselves, our colleagues, and our patrons. We’re all in this together.

Kirsti S. Thomas is the Technical Services Manager at Seattle Colleges. Julie Sheppard is the Circulation Supervisor at Seattle Central College Library.

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