Why there's no consensus on library book quarantines

As scientists discover more about how the COVID-19 virus spreads, some libraries are changing protocol when it comes to book quarantines.

Books in pandemic purgatory sit for days, sometimes a week — or not at all, depending on your library

The Calgary Central Library in East Village. The city's public library system has 1.4 million items in its collection of books, audiobooks, digital books, DVDs, CDs, newspapers and magazines. (Michael Grimm)

Books and other library items across the province are sitting in quarantine — because of guidance from the Alberta government. 

The province suggests returned items sit in a dedicated space for 72 hours before they are handled by employees or are returned to shelves for the public to access. This was done because of the concern that high-touch items and surfaces can act as COVID-19 spreading vehicles. 

But as the pandemic progresses, there's a growing conversation across the world about whether or not it's necessary for books to be put on a time-out, and if so, how long these objects should be set aside. 

Early on in the pandemic, experts talked a lot about the importance of good hand hygiene, covering your mouth with an elbow to stifle a cough or sneeze, and sanitizing often when coming into contact with high touch surfaces.

Now, the province has recognized that indoor settings where people are breathing in close proximity are one of the primary concerns because more evidence points to aerosol transmission as a big factor in the spread of COVID-19. 

The Calgary Public Library will always follow the local recommendations, but CEO Mark Asberg says they are watching a conversation unfold in the library and archive communities across the world.

Mark Asberg, the Calgary Public Library CEO, says the trend elsewhere is to reduce or remove the quarantine. (Helen Pike/CBC)

He sees a trend toward reducing or even eliminating this pandemic step.

"Generally, the trend is to reduce quarantine or remove it," he said. "At this point here in Alberta, we are following the public health guidance that's available to us."

Currently, at any given time, there are tens of thousands of books from the Calgary Public Library collection sitting in a 72-hour quarantine.

B.C. no longer requiring a book quarantine

According to the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, libraries are no longer required to quarantine items.

"There is no evidence that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted via textbooks, paper or other paper-based products," reads the BC CDC  website. "Laminated or glossy paper-based products (e.g., magazines and children's books) and items with plastic covers (e.g., DVDs) can be contaminated if handled by a person with COVID-19; however, the risk of transmission between users of borrowed items is very low."

Instead of quarantining or focusing efforts on disinfecting books, the BC CDC wants libraries to ensure they maintain physical distance between workers and patrons while providing supplies to ensure staff and customers can wash their hands.

Some libraries increasing time books sit untouched

But not all branches think eliminating or reducing book quarantines is the answer. Some, including the Canmore Public Library, have opted to increase book purgatory — and up their quarantine to seven days. 

Michelle Preston is the director of the Canmore Library. 

She said they have been following the REopening Archives, Libraries and Museums (REALM) project. The study produces science-based information to help inform how to handle materials and mitigate COVID-19 exposure to staff and visitors in libraries, archives and museums. 

"We have no control over what people do when they handle the materials in their home. Are they washing their hands? How many people are touching them?" Preston said. "Are they sneezing, coughing, breathing on them? It's not the primary way of transmission from what we understand, but it is a possibility."

Balancing service with safety

At this time, she feels seven days is a good comfort level to be safe. But, of course, it does impact how quickly library users can access books.

Asberg said the Calgary library system is watching this conversation unfold. He hopes soon they will see the day when a book quarantine isn't necessary.

"I think it's better for patrons, it's better for the library operations, in order to not have to quarantine," Asberg said. "I am confident one day we will get there. It's about, again, reaching that shared understanding of what the evidence is and following the public health guidance available to us."