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Covid-19 and health protection in libraries

A review of the literature and some recommendations on the handling of materials and the management of workspace [1]

by Vittorio Ponzani & Rosa Maiello
AIB (Italian Library Association)


Following the Covid-19 pandemic, many libraries in Europe and worldwide were subject to closure, others introduced entry quotas, reduced the range of services they deliver and suspended programs normally taking place at the library such as reading promotion and information literacy. However, almost all libraries continue to offer distance services, and in many cases they have enriched them. Depending on the national situation or on case-focused risk assessment, in many countries library staff are working mainly or exclusively from home, presence on the library premises being limited to a few essential activities, while in others they continue working on site, or have just recommenced to do so.

In any case, libraries, from now on and in the perspective of a full re-opening at the end of the lockdown, shall put in place adequate measures to protect both staff and users. Risks go beyond those arising by the physical presence of people on the premises, met by the recommendations issued at governmental level to all public services. They comprise the adoption of distance working as the preferred standard during the whole lockdown; prescribing that people with relevant symptoms do not go to work; ensuring that a safe distance is observed; banning gatherings and favouring social distancing measures; avoiding any sort of physical contact. Yet, risks derive also from the necessity to handle materials of various sorts (books and other documents, forms, postal parcels, devices, working surfaces, a.s.o.).

Apart from complying with governmental measures and recommendations from health authorities, it is advisable that the latest results of scientific research on the virus spread be known so as to take adequate prevention measures regarding access to and permanence of people in the library spaces, safety of those spaces as regards treating, moving and using books and other materials as well as any equipment.

Here follows a review of the main information sources on the topic that were selected prior to drawing the conclusions in the last paragraph.


Literature review

As regards the persistence of Covid-19 on surfaces, the prevailing opinion in the scientific community agrees with the authoritative “New England Journal of Medicine”: up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 72 hours on plastic and steel.

Neeltje van Doremalen et al., Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1, “New England Journal of Medicine”, 17 mar. 2020

The “Journal of Hospital Infection” points out that the endemic human coronavirus strain may remain infectious between 2 hours and 9 days, at room temperature, on inanimate surfaces such as metal, glass, or plastic. This research regards all coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS.

Kampf et al., Persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces and their inactivation with biocidal agents, “Journal of Hospital Infection”, 104 (2020), n. 3

At least one meter apart is the safe distance to prevent spread among apparently healthy individuals and the pathogenic potential of the aerosol on surfaces, as recommended by the Government following the measures of WHO (World Health Organization).

Nevertheless, it was observed that aerosols spread by infected, asymptomatic persons are contagious as well. Moreover, a recent study highlights that, in certain environmental conditions, gas clouds emitted during the breathing process can travel up to 7-8 meters far, meaning that a Covid-19 carrier may infect from that distance both people and materials, including ventilation, heating and air-conditioning systems.

Lydia Bourouiba et al., Turbulent gas clouds and respiratory pathogen emissions: potential implications for reducing transmission of COVID-19, “JAMA Insights”, March 26, 2020

The ISS (Istituto Superiore di Sanità, the Italian Higher Institution for Health) prepared recommendations on hygiene such as the disinfection of surfaces and the control of indoor air quality.

Indicazioni ad interim per la prevenzione e gestione degli ambienti indoor in relazione alla trasmissione dell’infezione da virus SARS-CoV-2. 23 March 2020 Update (ISS COVID-19 Report n. 5/2020)

In particular, see the piece of advice on hygiene at the workplace (p. 6-9 of the Report), including control of ventilation, heating and air-conditioning systems (p.6-8) and the overall summary chart (p.9).

As regards library associations, the following documents are pointed up:


COVID-19 and the Global Library Field

American Library Association

Pandemic preparedness: resources for libraries


Some practical guidelines

From the above review of scientific literature, it is possible to draw some conclusions, inspired, at the same time, by an essay on the disinfection of books and library hygiene. The latter may be outdated (especially as regards the types of disease and the disinfection methods), yet it is still useful, not only because it stimulates a reflection on the diverse aspects to consider, but also because it prompts us to think of the large variety of bacteria and pathogens that can be transmitted simply by touching materials, meaning that it shall be safe to maintain certain precautions also after virus Covid-19 is defeated.

Lamberto Bravi, Disinfezione dei libri e igiene bibliotecaria. Gubbio: Tip. Eugubina, 1943.

Drawing from the decisions already enacted by National authorities and from scientific literature, the following measures seem advisable till the end of the epidemic, that is well past the end of the lockdown:

  • maintaining entry quotas for staff and ensuring that all used workstations are at least one meter apart – though, considering the distance gas clouds can travel under certain conditions, a 7-8 mt. distance or the use of protective masks at all times would be preferable;
  • recommending that such distance be respected during the permanence on the premises and that compliance with the measure be monitored;
  • making disinfectant hand-rubs available at the entrance and inviting everyone to use them before moving on;
  • recommending that nobody touch their eyes, nose and mouth to protect their and other people’s health and informing that this is necessary also to preserve the disinfection of surfaces (books, parcels, forms, tables, PCs, keyboards and any object in the library) and to avoid that they become contaminated.
  • recommending everyone that they wash their hands frequently, or that they use an alcohol-based hand rub;
  • recommending everyone that they cover their mouth and nose with flexed elbow or use a tissue when they sneeze or cough. The prohibition for Coronavirus-affected individuals to leave home remains in place and it is advised that anyone with a fever or symptoms of a respiratory infection call their GP;
  • frequently cleaning surfaces with chlorine- and alcohol-based disinfectants;
  • frequently airing indoor spaces;
  • frequently disinfecting and sanitizing indoor spaces;
  • making sure that ventilation systems, if present, are methodically monitored and maintained;
  • during lockdown avoid using heating or cooling systems as much as possible, unless weekly cleaning of the filters can be guaranteed;
  • envisaging that staff use disposable latex (or nitrile) gloves to handle books or other materials consulted or returned by users whose health condition is not known with certainty, and that the materials be put aside for 72 hours (3 days), better still in a well-ventilated area, preventing their use and lending for the same amount of time;
  • the same measures shall be put in place to handle books and other materials of recent acquisition, donated to the library, returning from Inter-Library loan – extending the same caution to their packaging;
  • moreover, recommend all users that they:
    • clean and disinfect their hands prior to handling library books;
    • avoid wetting their fingers with saliva prior to turning the pages;
    • avoid coughing or sneezing over the books;
  • ask users that they declare, upon returning a book or any other document, whether the latter was in the possession of anyone who resulted Covid19-positive (ensuring that this declaration will simply entail higher caution in the treatment of the material and bear no consequences to the user.);
  • prepare and hand out written instructions for staff and users and post them at the entrance, inside the offices and in the rooms accessible to the public.

It may be superfluous to reiterate that also after the end of the lockdown, until the epidemic is totally over, working from home should be promoted as much as possible, also by establishing new organizational routines and increasing distance, digital services.


[1] Abridged version of Covid-19 e tutela della salute in biblioteca: Rassegna delle fonti e alcune raccomandazioni sul trattamento dei materiali e la gestione degli ambienti,  a cura di Vittorio Ponzani e Rosa Maiello. «AIB-WEB» (9 apr. 2020).


Translation from Italian by Matilde Fontanin.

URL: Copyright AIB 2020-04-21. Creata da Vittorio Ponzani, ultima modifica 2020-04-21 di Andrea Marchitelli