Beyond the Products

How to Disinfect Books: Keeping Readers Safe and Healthy

Every organization that deals with the public has to disinfect high-touch surfaces for public health. But if you run a library or other organization that lends books to the community, you can’t exactly submerge your books in a disinfectant. So what’s the best way to make sure they’re germ-free? 

It’s hard to imagine how to disinfect books, but it’s important to know the best practices for keeping your books clean. Knowing the protocols to keep your books disinfected will help you protect your staff, patrons, and community. 

Steps to disinfect your books

Disinfecting books isn’t hard, but it requires a different approach from most other surfaces. It’s important to know how to care for these delicate items to ensure that they don’t transmit disease. 

How to prepare a book for disinfecting 

Before you disinfect a book, you should assess your specific situation. 

Consider how your staff will store the book after disinfection, as well as the infection risk within your community. These details will help you decide how long your staff should quarantine the book before patrons can use it again. 

When preparing a book for disinfecting, rather than using hand sanitizer, wash your hands with soap and water or wear gloves. According to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, hand sanitizer leaves dirt and oils on your hands, which can transfer to your books and damage them. 

How to disinfect a book

Most disinfectants are harmful to books. Therefore, according to authorities like the American Library Association, quarantining books is the best way to disinfect them. 

Depending on the level of virus exposure and method of book storage, germs on hard surfaces like books should reduce to a safe level after about seventy-two hours of quarantine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

However, if you store quarantined books in stacks, you may need to isolate them longer. The REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums Project found that the coronavirus can survive on surfaces for as long as six days on stacked materials. 

What to do after you’re done disinfecting a book

After a book has been in quarantine for the requisite amount of time, your staff can return it to shelves for circulation. Before that, though, your staff should wash their hands and wear masks to avoid breathing airborne droplets onto the books. 

Products for disinfecting your books

Given the fragile nature of books, you must be careful about the products you use on them. It’s important to know which products are appropriate for disinfecting your books because it’s easy to do it wrong.  

What to avoid when looking for products to disinfect books with

Paper is very easy to damage, which means that most disinfectants pose a risk to books:

  • Liquid disinfectants can damage a book’s pages and weaken its spine. The chemicals in these products can also react with metals, plastics, or dyes and cause damage. 
  • Powdered disinfectants are too abrasive to use on any part of a book. 
  • Fogging disinfectants can cause irreversible chemical damage to books. 
  • Heat treatment, while effective for killing germs, can cause damage to books and is a risky way to disinfect them. 

Products designed for disinfecting books

Believe it or not, there are no common products that are specifically designed for disinfecting books. Paper is an extremely challenging surface to disinfect. So simply quarantining books for the appropriate length of time is the best way to ensure that they are safe for patrons to use while preserving their structural integrity. 

Chemicals, products, and ingredients that are safe for disinfecting books

Ultraviolet (UV) light might be safe for disinfecting books, although there are a few problems with it too. It can be too intense for books and could cause light damage. It’s also very difficult to expose all surfaces of a book—including every page—to UV light rays in order to kill pathogens completely. 

You can also wipe down the outsides of books that are wrapped in plastic jackets or coverings using disinfectant wipes or other aqueous disinfectants. However, this will not disinfect the insides of books, so a minimum three-day quarantine period is still the safest action to take. 

How to avoid damage when disinfecting your books

Anyone who works with books is well aware that it’s all too easy to damage them. Fortunately, there is only a small risk of damage if your staff quarantines books instead of disinfecting them. 

How improper disinfection techniques can permanently damage books

Any liquid disinfectant that comes into contact with a book’s pages carries the risk of breaking down the paper or blurring the ink. In addition, even if a plastic jacket protects a book cover, liquids could seep into crevices and damage the materials that make up the cover. This could affect the cover’s appearance or damage the book’s spine, eventually causing it to break. 

Abrasive cleaners or disinfectants will scratch book covers even if they’re covered in plastic. If used on pages, these products will break down the paper and likely render the pages unreadable.

How to protect books when disinfecting them

You must always handle books with utmost care. Avoid using any disinfecting products on books, since there are no products designed to disinfect them safely. Always keep books away from liquid substances, abrasive materials, excessively humid environments, or high levels of light or heat.

Always wash your hands with soap and water before handling your books. This is the best way to remove dirt and natural oils from your hands. Even invisible dirt and oil will gradually discolor and wear out book covers and pages.

Procedures to follow to avoid damage when disinfecting books

Here are some procedures to follow when disinfecting your book collection:

  • Always handle books with clean, dry hands. In addition to removing dirt and oils from your hands, this will ensure that you are not placing additional pathogens on books as you prepare them for quarantine or bring them back out of isolation. 
  • Store your books properly during their quarantine period. Stacking books can lengthen the amount of time they need to spend in quarantine, so store them individually if possible. In addition, stacking books horizontally puts pressure on their spines and can eventually cause the spines to crack. It’s best to shelve books vertically instead. 
  • Make sure you store your books under the right conditions during their quarantine period. According to the Library of Congress, the ideal storage room should be 75 degrees or below, fairly dry at about 35 percent humidity, and have minimal exposure to light sources. 

Importance of disinfecting your collections in a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new age of disinfecting everything. Prior to the pandemic, most organizations never thought of disinfecting their books. However, it has become important to know how to keep all surfaces as germ-free as possible—including books. 

How disinfecting your collections keeps your patrons safe

Although the novel coronavirus is mostly an airborne virus, research has shown that people can transmit it through contact with surfaces. A study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection showed that SARS-CoV coronaviruses—the same type of viruses as the novel coronavirus—can live on paper for up to five days at room temperature. (For the novel coronavirus strain, CDC recommendations state that the virus should return to a safe level within seventy-two hours). 

That means that whenever patrons take books from your facility, they may transfer the coronavirus or other pathogens to the books. When they bring the books back, those pathogens could infect your staff, patrons, or anyone else who comes into contact with those books.

Quarantining books for the proper length of time will virtually eliminate pathogens, significantly reducing the chance of virus transmission from your facility. While the coronavirus is mostly spread through interpersonal contact, organizations need to take every precaution to prevent both airborne and surface transmission. 

Other ways to protect your patrons during a pandemic

In addition to properly quarantining your books between each use, you should regularly clean and disinfect any hard surfaces in your facility that your patrons will be exposed to. These include chairs, desks, and bookshelves.

In an American Libraries article, Jacob Nadal, director for preservation at the Library of Congress, said that part of exercising caution during a pandemic is outsourcing cleaning and disinfecting to the pros. “If at all possible, hire a professional cleaning service that has appropriate training and personal protective equipment to do this work,” he advises. 

Caring for your collections the right way

Now that you know how to disinfect books, it’s simple—all they need is a little time in quarantine. There are few things more precious than books, so it’s essential to know how to treat them during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

At Spruce Industries, we love helping organizations come up with a plan that targets their unique cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing needs. Reach out to our team of experts today!

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