The community room in the Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library used to be an event space, but since last year it’s been a book purgatory, tables piled high with returned materials that sit waiting until they are deemed safe for the next reader.
Though returned books were once quarantined for days, District Administrator Karen DeAngelo said most libraries in the county are now holding them for only 24 hours.
She also acknowledged that science suggests the threat of catching the coronavirus from a borrowed book is low.
“We know this rule is really for the comfort level of the staff and patrons,” she said, noting that most returns remain at the library for at least a day anyway before being checked out again. “But maybe you’ve never seen anyone sneeze on a book. Perception is reality, and being able to do something that helps people feel safe is important.”
As vaccinations increase and case numbers dwindle, many of the restrictions that defined daily life for the last year will fall away. But for some, there’s no guarantee that the new habits or the heightened awareness of germs that took hold during the pandemic will go as easily. And a library is a community hub, a place where people of different ages are meant to gather and share things from person to person.
“One of our concerns was that people hold books closer to them than they do other things,” said Kathryn Brown, assistant director of the Ocean City Free Public Library, which recently reduced its book quarantine period from five to three days. “People like to take their books to bed, have them close to their faces. Especially with the kids’ materials: Kids like to hug their books.”
Much was unknown about the transmission of COVID-19 when the nation shut down last year, and initial research indicated the virus remained on surfaces for days. Some people disinfected groceries and left mail untouched for days, or longer.
By May 2020, the CDC was saying surface transmission was not driving infections of COVID-19. The Atlantic coined the term hygiene theater, arguing that focusing on disinfection provided a false sense of security because the virus was spreading primarily through airborne droplets from the breath, coughs, and sneezes of infected people.
But libraries didn’t race to return to normal operations. In March 2020, the American Library Association had recommended that libraries nationwide close to protect staff and patrons. Many kept their buildings closed, content to rely on book bins, pickup by appointment, and digital lending. And since the early days of the pandemic, libraries throughout the country have placed returned books in quarantine for anywhere from three to 14 days to prevent the spread of the virus.
Despite last month’s updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggest infection from surface transmission is unlikely, many libraries are still doing it — including those in New York City and Chicago, and even some in fully reopened states like Florida and Texas.
The Free Library of Philadelphia this week ended its long-standing policy of holding back books for seven days, with a spokesperson citing guidance from the Department of Public Health and the updated CDC data.
In Camden County, library director Linda Devlin said she discussed the three-day quarantine policy with staff and got permission from the county health department to end it a month ago.
“All of these restrictions go against everything a librarian is made of,” she said. “We want people to have access to information. We want to remove barriers to that. Holding back books, this all went against every fiber of our being. But we had no choice. We had to keep people safe.”
The pandemic hit when the book lenders were already facing existential challenges. More than one billion people visited libraries in 2019, according to the ALA, but that number is actually falling in recent years as facilities and staff have been stretched thin by declining funding.
As the first wave of the pandemic eased, librarians — by nature accustomed to gathering information — started developing their own reopening guidelines.
Many opened book drops first, and in Camden County, Devlin said libraries immediately received a flood of returns. Staff bought wheeled bins to sort the books, and labeled them by date to keep track of when they were returned. Other branches outlined squares on the floor with tape and grouped books in piles. Employees wore gloves, and some devised a system of lifting books out of drop boxes using tarps to further minimize contact.
Quarantining books added to librarians’ workloads, and at times caused delays for would-be borrowers, particularly for popular books with long waiting lists. And by summer, libraries nationwide were facing a record demand for reading material. E-book lending shot up by 50%, according to one major digital distributor. Meanwhile, many already struggling libraries face funding cuts due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.
At a time when many children weren’t in school, DeAngelo said Montgomery County’s libraries tried to make up for the lack of access to browsing shelves by delivering extra books to kids when they made curbside pickups. That was in addition to virtual programming like story hours and book discussion groups for older patrons on Zoom.
“The libraries never closed,” DeAngelo said. “The doors closed, but we have always been here.”
Many libraries took their lead on quarantining books from the REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project, a series of experiments funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that provides grants and research, to identify the risk of transmission on library materials.
While the REALM studies found the virus is viable for only a day on some hardcover or softcover books, they also found traces on plastic book coverings after three days. Nonporous materials, like children’s board books, DVDs, and magazines, retained traces longer.
Brianne Barker, a professor at Drew University in New Jersey who teaches virology and immunology, lauded the methodology of the REALM studies but said the research didn’t match real life. The COVID-19 virus degrades quickly on surfaces, she said, and any traces that remain are unlikely to lead to infection even if a book is returned to a library, then immediately checked back out.
“It’s not clear that there would be enough to actually transmit to someone,” she said. “I’d have to watch you lick the book and then walk over and lick it myself.”
Is it possible to catch a virus from a book? Maybe, Barker said, but probably not this virus. Since COVID-19 is less environmentally stable than some, people are more likely to pick it up from frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs and keyboards than from covers of the latest best sellers.
Since libraries reopened, staff have addressed safety concerns by asking for PPE, disinfecting surfaces, requiring masks, and limiting the number of patrons allowed in buildings. Like outdoor mask-wearing, which is up for debate amid evolving guidelines, quarantining books is a habit that some are reluctant to break.
Brown, in Ocean City, said the facility decided to shorten the quarantine time after the latest CDC guidance. She expects they will make more changes as long as local case numbers keep falling. Montgomery County is adopting the same stance, DeAngelo said.
Devlin, of Camden County, also monitored the research on surface transmission in order to develop quarantine guidelines, but reached a different conclusion.
“As time went on, we started to wonder more and more if it was necessary,” she said. “I started asking, Do we know enough now that we can stop doing this?”
When the policy lifted, she said, there was a lot of relief.
“We were really eager to get those books out of the bins,” she said, “and back to the shelves where they belong.”