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Preserving books in the library at the time of pandemic


Preservation and conservation of books and other resources in the libraries is an important issue. To protect our cultural heritage, preservation plays an important role. Books are preserved in many ways in a library-it ranges from simple dusting, mending, laminating, fumigating, microfilming,de-acidifying to the most modern process of digitally preserving. In this pandemic, a very important issue which strikes our mind is that how can the libraries “sanitize “the books or resources which have been lent out or returned, so that these are free of the COVID-19 virus contact.

             If we look at the history of this type of problem, we find that historical information on sanitizing library materials is lacking. There is no such serious report as to the treatment of books in the burst of an epidemic, or pandemic. In the summer of 1879, there was a ‘Great Book Scare “. In September 12 1895, Jessie Allen of Nebraska died of tuberculosis. Death due to tuberculosis was common at that time, but her case was an unusual one. Since she was a librarian at the Omaha Public Library, so people were worried at that time that her terminal illness came from a book. The message spread rapidly that the books which were lent from the libraries were contaminated, and could spread deadly diseases. A negative wave ran through the society at that time that none would borrow books from the libraries. So book lending institutions faced a major challenge from this disease scare. It was felt that the contaminated books would pass from one hand to the other, and people were anxious that  diseases like TB, small pox or scarlet fever could spread through these contaminated books. The suspicion of spread of infections through contaminated books spread so far so that in U.K. in 1907, a law was passed thus“If any person knows that he is suffering from an infectious disease, he shall not take any book or use or cause any book to be taken for his use for any public or circulating library “ ( Section 59 of Britain”s Public Health Administration Act , 1907). So the danger of spreading the disease through book lending was evident; and those suspected of having an infectious disease were forbidden to borrow, lend or return library books with fines upto 40 shillings. The inhalation of book dust was also thought of as dangerous at that time.

          The journals and newspapers at that time also stressed on the risk of contamination through books. In the Perrysberg Journal (Ohio), it was stated that “books as one of the items to be removed from the rooms of the sick”, and The Ohio Democrat stated that “ The disease scarlet fever has been spread by circulating libraries.” The Highland Recorder, a newspaper in Virginia also stated that “public library books may scatter scarlet fever. “ It was also ordered that books suspected of carrying diseases should be burnt, and not returned to the library. The risk of contamination of disease through books was nullified after many years, when a group of doctors and hygiene professors   declared that there was no chance of contamination through books.

As for the COVID-19 virus attack, which has taken the shape of a pandemic, the question arises as to how the libraries should take precautions of the books issued or returned to the libraries? This is the doubt of a number of librarians dealing with this problem. The virologists have come to the conclusion till now that this Coronavirus can sustain on cardboard and paper based products up to 24 hours. So, as such, that there is no worry to disinfect the books. The virus, if present, would be in a very low quantity and would die off quickly. So one could wait for a 24 hour period before lending the book again if he or she is in an area of high transmission. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that at the extreme point if one is sick, he should not share the books until he is symptom free. The American Library Association has recommended that isolating the books for 24 hours, and preferably 14 days is the best disinfectant, and the libraries should plan to stay closed unless and until the risk of the public infection is eliminated. So it has been suggested that the appropriate quarantine time for paper and normal books is minimum 24 hours, and appropriate quarantine time for books covered in polyester (eg. Mylar ) or other plastic based cover is 72 hours. Therefore preventive measures or prophylaxis is the best remedy for the books in this situation. Dr. Caitlin Pedati, Medical Director and State Epidemiologist at the Iowa Dept. of Public Health opines that it is unlikely that someone could become infected by COVID-19 by handling a library book.

But then to minimize or eliminate the risk of contamination, the   libraries can choose between isolating and disinfecting its materials. Isolating the resources from materials is the best policy. If going for disinfection, the books with cloth covers or paperbacks can be disinfected with a microfiber cloth or disinfectant wipes, and for books with plastic covers, it is best to use disinfectant wipes. But never should one use spray, or wipe with Lysol or alcohol or any type of bleaching solution to disinfect the books, or it will be lethal for these materials. Many libraries also are thinking of use of UV rays as a means of sterilization. But this is also not recommended, as a complete exposure is needed, which is not possible with bound books. It has been noticed that books wrapped in polyester or polyethylene is better cleaned and disinfected, and strong library binding buckram cloth coverings can probably withstand enhanced cleaning.

All the above issues discussed deals with solely the measures taken to sanitize the books and other resources. But there are some other measures which should be adopted to make the libraries a safe place to visit after this pandemic. An important part of this ongoing process is that library materials which were not lent out must be kept ready for lending now. These materials were not affected in any way by the virus, and thus can be safely lent out to the readers. So the readers’ demands can be met in that way. A very important part of this work includes making the library completely closed access. The open access library would be a dream now, with a lot of restrictions to be imposed on the staff and users. Therefore closed access is the solution for the time being. Limiting the number of sections would be beneficial, as it would involve far more social distancing , and also minimal interaction with the resources. The priority of the demand of the resources need to be sorted out, and those resources are only to be collected and placed in one section. Therefore the sections would be reshuffled, with only the prioritized documents arranged in one place. The most important and last option is , of course , to move from hard copy format to e format , so that minimum contact with the resources is allowed, and also taking the help of remote access software to access and deliver the resources.

Therefore it is to be again emphasized that there is no such risk of transmission of this virus through books, and above all, TIME , in case of reading materials too, is the best disinfectant. It is becoming clear day by day that we have to live with this Corona virus, until and unless a suitable vaccine is being developed , and therefore we should not panic , and try to make the library a safe place for the readers.



1. on 4.6.2020

2.    American libraries—May, 2020


(The author is Professor, Dept. of Library & Information Science, University of Calcutta&Dean (Acting)University of Calcutta. /


Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi