Is It Safe to Go Back to My Local Library?

We asked the head of Northeastern's epidemics lab if we should be worried about catching viruses from our library books.

Boston Public Library

Photo by Meredith Foley

As we enter our third month of quarantine, things are getting dire in my household. I’ve run out of all-purpose flour. I’ve run out of free trials on workout streaming services. But, most importantly and upsettingly, I’ve run out of books to read.

I never thought this would happen. I have a pretty significant collection of unread books clogging my shelves—novels I accidentally stole from former co-workers, weird nonfiction I bought in a maniac frenzy during the Harvard Book Store Warehouse Sale, all those British Romantic poetry collections I pretended to read for my college lit classes—but I can really and truly say that I have now cracked the spine on every one of these books, reading most, and deeming the rest too unbearably boring to dedicate my time to. Now, months deep into quarantine, I am the picture of desperation. I have tried and failed to e-read on my phone. I blew up my book-buying budget weeks ago. I have even started to wonder, during my at-home workouts, if I should actually read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare that I typically use as a makeshift dumbbell. All this to say—I need to get back to the library, soon.

Now that the reopening plan is in motion across the state, I’m truly excited at the thought of being able to browse and borrow books from my local library again. However, I’ve found that as much as I’m thinking about what new books I’m going to check out, I’m also thinking about the risks associated with the way libraries work. As you may remember from the Before Times, library books are accessible for all to take home and return—a concept that was charming and neighborly before, but now just makes me wonder if I’m going to catch COVID from a sneezed-on copy of Where the Crawdads Sing. 

For what it’s worth, the official guidance from the CDC says that the virus “does not spread easily” via surfaces and objects, but that “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.” For more clarification, I turned to Sam Scarpino, an assistant professor of network science who heads Northeastern’s epidemics lab. According to Scarpino, there are a couple of things to consider when it comes to assessing the risk of touching a library book: The material books are made of, and the length of time you spend touching them.

“If you’re reading a book, you’re having a lot of a lot of contact with the book,” Scarpino says. “You’re touching it for a long period of time and holding it close to your face.” Those factors would suggest that a book is a higher-risk surface, Scarpino says, if not for the fact that most of the time, library books are not passed around rapidly. While the specific material books are made of has not been surface-tested for COVID, Scarpino estimates that the lifespan of the virus would be similar on books as it is on cardboard, meaning that it has a survival time of about 24 hours. If a library book sits in the library for a day after it’s returned, therefore, most of the virus particles would break down before it’s borrowed again.

If you really want to be prudent, Scarpino says, you can bring your books home and set them somewhere for 24 hours, but overall, catching the virus from a borrowed book doesn’t seem highly likely. “There’s certainly not zero risk that there could be a transmission,” Scarpino says, “But I would say that it’s a lower risk than many, many other things.”

Rather, the biggest risk involved with libraries reopening is simply the fact that, like every other business, they are enclosed, indoor spaces where people will gather. It’s therefore crucial that both library workers and patrons wear masks, that high-touch surfaces are regularly disinfected, and that strict capacity limits are enforced, Scarpino says. Circulating materials (allowing people to take a book off the shelf and skim it, then put it back, for example) is also “probably not a great thing,” though it might be hard to avoid in a library, he adds.

Other New England states’ libraries seem to be taking a pretty cautious approach to reopening. At the Gray Public Library in Southern Maine, which reopened on May 5 for curbside pickup and limited browsing, only 10 people are allowed in at a time, everyone over the age of 2 must wear a face mask, and if patrons touch items they don’t want to take home, they’re instructed to leave them on a designated table so they can be quarantined for 72 hours. A library in New Hampshire, which opened for curbside pickup on May 6, is quarantining borrowed materials for 7 days. After the state’s Stay-At-Home Order is lifted, the library plans to allow patrons inside by appointment.

So, if the Boston Public Library system’s reopening plan looks anything like our neighbors’ (we’ve reached out to the BPL for details of their plan, and will update if we hear back), it sounds like we probably won’t get back to the relaxed, friendly library experience anytime soon. But, even if you have to rush in and out of the library and restrain yourself from flipping through all the books on the shelves, you can at least rest assured that your library books aren’t likely to carry terrifying diseases into your home. And, as I wearily eye the 500-page Henry James novel from college that I left open on my coffee table, I’ve decided that’s certainly good enough for me.

Update 5/24 6:30 p.m.: After this story was published, a number of library workers reached out with concerns over reopening public libraries. Callan Bignoli, the Director of the Library at Needham’s Olin College of Engineering, said her reservations about reopening even extended to pickup service. There isn’t sufficient information available about the way that library materials could transmit the virus yet, Bignoli says, and while curbside pickup seems relatively low-risk, there’s a distinction between picking up library materials and picking up food from a restaurant. “It’s kind of like if you went to order some takeout and you ate the food, and then you cleaned out the takeout containers and brought them back to the restaurant to be reused for somebody else,” Bignoli points out. Bignoli also believes that Boston-area libraries might pose more of a social distancing challenge than people may think—branches such as the Coolidge Corner and Central locations play host to large numbers of patrons throughout the day. “I think a lot of library workers are saying, ‘To feel safe and secure at work, I’d really appreciate it if we waited until we have like a little bit more science and a little clearer guideline of how we’re going to be operating,’” she says.