A spokesperson for the New York City Public Library system said that libraries may have to “quarantine” their books once the facilities — now shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic — are allowed to reopen.
As Yahoo Finance reports, Tony Marx, the chief executive of the New York Public Library, said he is waiting for guidance from scientists and experts in the field of public libraries. He stated he is looking for advice specifically on what to do with books that have been lent out and may be tainted with the virus.
“We may need to quarantine our books for that long to make sure that we’re not passing germs from one person to another. That’s something that you know, the experts in the world of libraries and science — they’re going to have to tell us,” he said.
The answer to that question rests at least partly on how long the virus can survive on cardboard, paper, and plastic, the three components of most library books.
As it turns out, that question is largely unanswered.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine posited the novel coronavirus could survive for up to three days on hard metal surfaces and plastic, and up to 24 hours on cardboard. Another study, in the academic journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, found that another pathogen in the coronavirus family of viruses could survive on paper for anywhere between five minutes and 24 hours.
This theoretically means that — if a patron thumbed through a book that’s been wrapped in a protective plastic sleeve — they could infect it with the coronavirus. Then, if another patron touched the same book within three days, they could potentially contract the virus.
The same scenario applies to the paper cover of the book and even the pages within, albeit for a shorter time period.
For now, however, the risk appears to be abstract.
During the pandemic, Americans have been sending and receiving mail sealed in paper envelopes and almost certainly handled by other people. Similarly, they have been receiving cardboard packages during the pandemic.
As of this writing, there are no documented instances of a person picking up the coronavirus by touching paper mail, a newspaper, or a cardboard package.
Marx, for his part, wants to take things slowly and not open up all of the city’s public libraries at once. Rather, he suggested opening a few locations to see how things pan out.
He also noted that libraries will be facing pressure to reopen quickly, as he expects bored New Yorkers to demand books to take home and read.
“This is a new world,” he said.