Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Safe Handling of Library Materials

COVID-19 is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation. Get the latest public health information from CDC: . Get the latest research from NIH:

Handling of Library Materials During COVID-19 Pandemic

Recommendations for Safe Handling

COVID-19 Basics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Information

REALM Project

Additional Research Related to COVID-19 and Materials

Recommendations for Safe Handling

The Barbara Goldsmith Preservation & Conservation Department recommends the following procedures for safe handling of library materials during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  The goal of these recommendations is to protect the health of all members of the NYU community.  This information is subject to change based on ongoing research, and this page will be updated as new information becomes available.

  • Library returns: Book return bins should be quarantined for 72 hrs. If the return bin is needed for use, then empty the contents onto a book truck and quarantine the truck for 72 hrs. Staff should wear gloves and masks while placing items on book trucks. Staff should wash hands with soap and water after handling recently returned library materials.
  • Plastic cases (CD/DVD): Plastic cases should be quarantined for 72 hrs. If they are needed sooner than that, they can be wiped with sanitizing wipes containing 70% ethyl or isopropyl alcohol. NOTE: It’s important to wait until the sanitizer has dried completely before the next person touches the CD/DVD. Staff should wear gloves and masks while handling plastic cases. Staff should wash hands with soap and water afterward.
  • Mail, boxes, and packages: Limit the number of people opening mail and packages. Observe social distancing when receiving and opening parcels. Staff should wash hands with soap and water after handling mail. When possible, quarantine mail/packages for 72 hrs. Some kind of notation should be used to indicate the date when the materials were placed in quarantine. If mailed materials are needed sooner than 72 hours than staff wearing a mask and gloves can wipe the outside of the package with a disinfectant or sanitizing wipes containing 70% ethyl or isopropyl alcohol.  NOTE: It’s important to wait until the sanitizer has dried completely before opening.
  • Computers/technology guidelines: Clean and disinfect shared equipment using sanitizing wipes containing 70% ethyl or isopropyl alcohol. NOTE: It’s important to wait until the sanitizer has dried completely before the next person touches the equipment. Staff/users should wash hands with soap and water after disinfecting shared equipment.
  • Book trucks: Clean and disinfect shared book trucks. Wipe down with sanitizing wipes containing 70% ethyl or isopropyl alcohol between uses. NOTE: It’s important to wait until the sanitizer has dried completely before the next person touches the book truck. Staff should wash hands with soap and water afterward. When possible, label book trucks and assign them to a particular person.
  • Paging and Scanning: Wear a face mask whenever handling collection materials. Staff should wash hands with soap and water prior to and after handling library materials. Quarantine all library materials handled by non-masked individuals for 72 hours before use, scanning, or reshelving.

For disinfectant products for use against COVID-19, see the EPA List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).

COVID-19 Basics

​SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes the illness COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the primary way the virus spreads is through person to person contact – through nasal discharge or saliva droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs. The best way to prevent viral transmission is by practicing good hand washing hygiene, wearing a face mask that covers both the nose and mouth, and practicing physical distancing of at least six feet (two meters) from others.

Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) has been shown to be beneficial in reducing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.  It is important to properly remove and dispose of used PPE to prevent contamination.  Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided guidance on best practices for how to wear and remove a face mask and take off and dispose of gloves and other PPE.  After use, immediately place these items in trash containers.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Information

The virus naturally dies within hours to days.  Hard, non-porous surfaces like door handles should be cleaned if visibly dirty, and disinfected with an EPA-approved disinfectant. Soft, porous surfaces like towels or clothing should also be cleaned with EPA-approved disinfectants and, if possible, laundered.  Disinfectant wipes and other materials used for cleaning and sanitizing should be placed directly in waste bins.

While the CDC does not offer detailed specific guidance for library materials, an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) webinar with Dr. David Berendes and Dr. Catherine Rasberry from the CDC in March 2020 provided some insight. Dr. Berendes said regular use of library materials is not a cause for concern about contamination, unless someone has coughed or sneezed directly onto a book. In areas of higher virus spread, they suggested quarantining books for 24 hours between lendings as best practice. Note: at NYU Libraries, however, we will be following the practice of quarantining books for 72 hours based on our review of available research.

REALM Project

The primary source of information regarding SARS-CoV-2 on library materials is the REALM Project: Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums.  The project is a collaboration among OCLC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Batelle.

REALM Literature Review & Testing Plan

Spurred by a preliminary literature review that identifies the scarcity of peer reviewed publications on the topic SARS-CoV-2 on inanimate surfaces, the project has released their testing plan, whose goal is to test the viability of SARS-CoV-2 on a variety of surfaces in order to guide the archives, museums, and libraries community on safe handling of collections materials.

The first phase of REALM testing investigated how long it took the SARS-CoV-2 virus to inactivate under ambient environmental conditions when it is applied to the following materials: a) a hardcover binding, b) a buckram binding, c) a plastic book jacket, d) book pages, e) a paperback binding, and f) a plastic DVD case.

The second testing phase began on June 23, 2020, and includes a) Braille paper pages, b) glossy paper pages, c) magazine pages, d) children’s board books, and e) archival folders.

The third testing phase began on July 10, 2020, and was focused on testing of plastic materials commonly used in libraries.  It includes a) polycarbonate, b) acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), c) acrylic, d) low-density polyethylene (LDPE), and e) high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

The fourth testing phase began on August 4, 2020, and is focused on retesting the materials studied in test 1, but in a stacked configuration. In addition, expanded polyethylene foam will also be tested (this is used in housing artworks and objects). The results are anticipated in mid-September.

Additional phases of testing will evaluate other types of library, archival, and museum materials.  Please note that any plan for handling library materials is subject to change based on research currently in progress.

REALM Testing Results

Results for the first testing phase released June 22, 2020 show that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not detectable on these common circulating library materials after three days (72 hours) in environmental conditions found in climate controlled buildings (22⩲2° Celsius/71.6⩲2° Fahrenheit and 40⩲10% Relative Humidity).

The results from the second phase of testing were released July 20, 2020.  In this phase, the following materials were tested: a) Braille paper pages, b) glossy book pages, c) magazine pages, d) children’s board books, and e) archival folders.  The sample materials were placed in closed books, which were then stacked to reproduce library storage conditions.  Stacks were stored at standard environmental conditions (22⩲2° Celsius/71.6⩲2° Fahrenheit and 40⩲10% Relative Humidity).  Results indicated that archival folder stacks showed no detectable SARS-CoV-2 virus after two days.  Low levels of the virus were present after three days for magazine paper, glossy paper, and Braille pages.  By Day 4, only the magazine paper showed observable virus.  Day 4 was the final timepoint tested.

Alt-Text: Screenshot from REALM study website showing line graph of natural attenuation of SARS-CoV-2 at 1, 3, and 4 days. The graph has lines for Hardback Book Cover, Plastic Protective Cover, Paperback Book Cover, DVD Case, and Plain Paper Pages, each with a different color. All lines decrease quickly, with no detectable virus for all materials from day 3 onward.

Alt text:  Screenshot from REALM study website showing line graph of natural attenuation of SARS-CoV-2 at 1, 2, 3, and 4 days. The graph has lines for Children’s board book, archival folder, Braille page, glossy page, and magazine page, each with a different color. All lines decrease, with no detectable virus on all materials except magazine paper from day 4 onward.

Additional Research Relating to COVID and Materials

Published as a letter to the editor, this not-yet-peer-reviewed study evaluates the viability of SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV-1 (the strain of virus most similar to SARS-CoV-2) in a variety of environmental conditions and surfaces. The paper concludes that fomite transmission is plausible as the virus remains infectious in the air for hours and on surfaces for up to days depending on viral load.

Both virus types were more persistent on stainless steel and plastic than on copper and cardboard.  For SARS-CoV-2 the viability was as follows: viable but reduced load after 72 hours on plastic, viable but reduced load after 48 hours on stainless steel, no viable virus after 4 hours on copper, no viable virus after 24 hours on cardboard.

Cardboard was the only surface where the 2 viruses had very different half lives but cardboard also has the noisiest and thus least reliable data.

This peer reviewed publication is a literature review focussing on a variety of coronaviruses (including SARS-CoV-2) and their persistence on inanimate surfaces.  The authors found a broad range of time depending on virus type, substrate, and environmental conditions.  They concluded that absorbent materials are safer for protection and transmission via touching paper is low.

Studies of SARS-CoV samples taken from the air and from surfaces in hospitals show that the highest likelihood of transmission is through respiratory droplets and fecal matter.  The virus can exist in the air, but its infectivity can be low depending upon ventilation.

Environmental conditions have a large impact on virus survival with dry, warm environments being less hospitable to the virus. Heating at over 100 degrees decreases the viability of many strains of the virus.

This peer-reviewed paper is a literature review that looks at the efficacy of common disinfectants on a variety of coronaviruses, including MERS, SARS, HCoV-, and veterinary types.  Their findings show that virus type and environmental conditions appear to have a notable effect on their persistence.  Depending on virus type, the range of time that a specific strain can persist on a substrate varied widely.  Higher temperatures and lower relative humidity limited viral persistence, while lower temperatures and higher relative humidity have opposite effects. Ethanol and bleach are shown as the most effective disinfectants – tests were done on stainless steel substrates only.