To reduce the spread of novel coronavirus, Americans may continue social distancing for many more months — but such precautions could last even longer for books kept at the nation’s libraries, said Tony Marx, the chief executive of the New York Public Library, the largest public library system in the U.S.
Concerned that the disease can survive on surfaces like paper and transmit from one book borrower to the next, libraries once they reopen may impose a quarantine period on books that lasts as long as scientists determine the coronavirus can survive on the materials, said Marx, whose library system serves more than 17 million people each year.
“We may need to quarantine our books for that long to make sure that we’re not passing germs from one person to another,” Marx says. “That’s something that you know, the experts in the world of libraries and science — they’re going to have to tell us.”
“How long can the virus live on paper or any other element of a book?” Marx asks, positing that library systems may eventually turn to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency, for an answer to the question.
‘This is a new world’
So far, concerns about transmission of the disease via paper have focused on the delivery of packages, mail, and the newspaper. There are no documented instances of the coronavirus being transmitted by packages or the newspaper, The New York Times reported last Friday. However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, in March, found the coronavirus can live as long as three days on hard metal surfaces and plastic and up to 24 hours on cardboard.
A study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, in 2005, examined the virus caused by SARS, a different coronavirus, finding that various concentrations of the virus dissipated on paper in anywhere from five minutes to 24 hours.
Overall, the pandemic presents libraries with formidable new challenges, Marx said, which will cause the New York Public Library to likely reopen “gradually,” so he and other officials can observe what happens at initial locations.
“This is a new world,” he says. “I don’t think we could open all of our facilities, nor do I think we should instantly. Let’s open a few. Let’s learn and see how it goes.”
The New York Public Library has continued to make its more than 300,000 e-book collection available to members, Marx said. In the first week following the closure of the New York Public library in mid-March, checkouts of e-books spiked 700%, he added, noting that the checkouts had “leveled since then.”
“We need to keep adding to the books in the collection,” Marx says. “This crisis is an opportunity for us to do more.”
Marx made the remarks during a conversation that aired in an episode of Yahoo Finance’s “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.
In 2011, Marx took over as the CEO of the New York Public Library. Before that, he served as the president of Amherst College and a professor of political science at Columbia University.
As kids remain cooped up at home eager to go out and workers affected by the economic impact seek to use the library’s services, some people will urge the library system to open quickly, Marx predicted.
“We’ll be under some pressure I imagine to open and we’ll be working with the city and being very mindful of public safety,” he says.
Marx is “experiencing a greater sense of uncertainty than I think I’ve ever felt in my life on a macro scale,” he adds. “That’s just very hard — my God, New Yorkers, we’re used to being totally in control.”