Health and Collections Care During COVID-19

Health and Collections Care During COVID19

My name is Heather Hamilton, and I am the new conservator for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. I am so pleased to have joined the staff at TSLAC. My position began on May 1st, right in the middle of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, so many of my coworkers on the Archives and Information Services team are working from home, and I am getting to know them through online meetings. Working in the Summerlee Conservation Lab does not require me to have close contact with other staff, so I am able to work at the Lorenzo de Zavala building most days. TSLAC continues to be open to researchers, so a small number of staff are here to provide those services. Those of us working in the building wear face coverings and practice social distancing. Needless to say, my first weeks on the job have been memorable.

One of my first assignments at TSLAC was to research handling recommendations for library and archives materials during the pandemic and to write a set of guidelines for our staff. My research led me to a wealth of information compiled by organizations whose goal it is to help libraries and museums fulfill their missions. The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Center for Preservation Training and Technology (NCPTT), and the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) are just three that have gathered information and interviewed scientists about how best to handle heritage collections and to share them with patrons safely.

The most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that the primary source of coronavirus spread is through person-to-person contact. We are taking precautions at TSLAC to minimize the risk of this type of transmission. In an abundance of caution, we are also using an isolation period for collections that could have been contaminated. I’m sharing our guidelines with you here. Because the situation is fluid, we will update our practices as needed and keep up with the best information we can find.

Handling Collection Materials During the Coronavirus Outbreak
By Heather Hamilton, Conservator, ARIS, TSLAC / May 7, 2020

 As employees, we are all concerned about the ways we might be exposed to coronavirus in the workplace. Centers for Disease Control guidelines for understanding the spread of the virus focus on two methods of transmission:

  • respiratory transmission through water droplets expelled when coughing or talking
  • touching high-contact surfaces that have been contaminated, then touching the face

Most of us are now aware of the CDC recommendations to prevent transmission:

  • Wear a face covering in public spaces.
  • Keep a minimum distance of six feet from others.
  • Wash your hands frequently and for at least 20 seconds.
  • Cough into your bent elbow or into a tissue. Dispose of the tissue in a trash can and then wash your hands.
  • Disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as shared office equipment, with a 70% alcohol solution.

Working at TSLAC, we have added concerns about handling collection materials that may have been contaminated. How long can coronavirus survive on collections? The following periods of virus viability have been published.

New England Journal of Medicine 3/17/20: Plastics: 72 hours; Stainless steel: 48 hours; Paper: 24 hours

Journal of Hospital Infection 2/6/20: Plastics: 6 to 9 days; Metals: 5 days; Paper: 4 to 5 days

Because research on the virus is ongoing, we aren’t surprised to read differing results from studies. However, collecting institutions like ours need to apply the findings to our day-to-day operations. On March 30, 2020, the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) hosted a webinar to help libraries, archives, and museums interpret the science and apply it to the re-opening of their facilities.

Dr. David Berendes, epidemiologist with the CDC, answered questions from IMLS staff. He explained that, under lab conditions, the virus can live up to 24 hours on paper. However, paper’s porous surface tends to trap the virus so that it cannot easily infect a person who handles it. Dr. Berendes stated that a 24-hour quarantine for paper-based materials would be a cautious approach when dealing with paper items that could have been contaminated.

Of course, not all the materials we handle have a porous paper surface. We need to be aware of non-paper materials in our collections. This would include items such as:

  • Mylar sleeves and covers
  • Coated paper dust jackets and storage boxes
  • Plastic storage cases
  • Non-cardboard shipping containers
  • Digital media and electronic devices

The virus can survive longer on these materials. A box of mixed library materials containing books, papers, and plastics should, therefore, have a longer quarantine than a box of papers alone. The Northeast Document Conservation Center is a resource for collecting institutions, offering training and guidelines for preserving cultural heritage materials. Their guidance is to use a 24-hour quarantine for paper-based materials that may have been contaminated and a 7-day quarantine for mixed materials that include plastics.

As of now, a 24-hour quarantine for paper and 7-day quarantine for plastics seems cautious, and that is the standard TSLAC will use unless recommendations change.

So, what does this mean for day-to-day handling of collections at TSLAC?

Paper-based materials are not very effective carriers of the virus, so we don’t need to be fearful of handling our books and paper. However, we do need to stop and think about materials that come to us in the course of our work. When faced with a collection that has not been in our care over the past days, we can ask ourselves the following questions. This will guide us in following the recommendations that are available.

  • Where was this material over the past week?
  • Are these materials paper-based and porous? Are there non-porous materials included?
  • Do I need to handle these items today or can I set them aside for a period?
  • The safest course of action would be to isolate the materials. After items have been quarantined, we are safe to handle them.

Additional topics for handling collections:

Gloves: The wearing of gloves is helpful during this time, but we need to use them cautiously. While wearing gloves will keep the virus off our hands, we should be sure not to touch the gloves to our faces. Keep in mind the guidelines for glove-wearing that we practiced before the outbreak. Gloves reduce our tactile sense, so we should not use them to turn pages in a book or to leaf through individual paper sheets. This detail work is better done with clean hands after a quarantine has been completed. As always, certain photographic materials and digital media require gloves to protect sensitive surfaces from grease on our hands.

Disinfecting: The coronavirus can be killed with standard household disinfectants like alcohol and diluted bleach solutions. However, most collection materials cannot tolerate disinfectants, so a quarantine period is a better option.


Institute of Museum and Library Services. (2020, March 30) Mitigating COVID-19 When Managing Paper-Based, Circulating, and Other Types of Collections. [Webinar]

Kampf, D. Todt, S. Pfaender, and E. Steinmann. “Persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces and their inactivation with biocidal agents,” Journal of Hospital Infection 104 (2020) 246-251. March 20, 2020.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. (2020, March 25) Covid-19 Basics: Disinfecting Cultural Resources. [Recording of Facebook Live event]


Northeast Document Conservation Center. (2020, March 26) Disinfecting Books and Other Collections.