Returns, Library Circulation, and Safety During COVID-19

Our staff is taking care to keep our book returns and circulation process as safe and sanitary as possible during the pandemic.

We know how important it is to have a process for returning books and other physical items that protects the health of our staff and keeps you and your loved ones safe. So last week, we took a socially distanced photographic tour of three of our libraries to show you how we are following scientific recommendations by quarantining our books.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services collaborated with other professional library groups and scientific research consultants to study the properties of COVID-19 on paper and mylar. The experts concluded that 3 days was the recommended wait time so the virus would not remain active on library materials, a result which agreed with a study from the National Institute of Health. CALS leadership determined that our quarantine process would sequester all book returns for 4 days, out of an abundance of caution.

After you return your books in a book drop, a masked, gloved staff member removes the books from the book drop, taking care to touch only one with each gloved hand and to avoid any other contact with the book. The books are then placed on a dated cart and rolled away to a storage area to be left in isolation for 4 days.

When the quarantine ends, staff can begin working with the books to get them back on the shelves, knowing that the risk of infection has passed for both staff and future users. Our staff wears masks when in the building and maintains social distance. Because our buildings are still closed to the public, there are very few staff members in each library and lots of space.

Jennifer Cordell, Manager of the CALS Terry Library, was good-humored about the exertion and time required to unload book drops in the meticulous way that follows health guidelines. As Cordell described the quarantine system through her mask, she stood at the sink thoroughly washing her hands and gloving up.

Because the Terry Library’s book drop cart can’t hold all the books that come in each day, staff must allow the books to fall to the floor, which leads to a tough workout to stay distant from both floor and books! Even before the pandemic, the books sometimes had to fall through the book drop onto the floor.

“Before, we had to take away the return cart from under the drop slot on Saturdays because we knew it was going to be two days’ worth and the books wouldn’t all fit. So we’re used to the materials falling on the floor, and I try not to touch the floor. It’s like the kids’ game: the floor is lava! And after one of us has done the drop, we disinfect the soles of our shoes.”

Cordell is aware of the need to be scrupulously careful. “Occasionally, I’ll touch my arm with a book and then I think, ‘now I have to go wash up to the elbow!’” she said. “I also think about whether to put my hair back if I’m clearing the book drop that morning. If I put it in a bun, it may fall out, so I braid it instead if I’m doing the drop.”

As Cordell did the deep knee bends necessary to make sure she cleared the floor and made only minimal contact with the books, one book at a time, she stood up for a moment.

“Whew, taking a break!” she said. We both chuckled. It’s hard work clearing 100 books from a floor, one book at a time. Sometimes, there can be as many as 300.

At the CALS Fletcher Library, manager Liz Wooley described their returns system, which uses the same quarantine period but designates return days with alphabetical letters to label quarantined carts. All the libraries are methodical and precise about their signs. There can be no mistaking which cart should be unloaded when.

Wooley explained. “Staff lets the drop sit overnight, and then first thing in the morning, we unload and put everything on carts. Then we put all of our quarantine items in the program room, which is used only for quarantine right now.”

Some patrons have been concerned about quarantine causing late fines, but staff is backdating returned materials when they are eventually checked in, so any delay from quarantine won’t affect the return date.

“I kept having to reassure the person not to worry, because a fine is not going to show up, and if it does show up, we’re going to take it off,” Wooley said. “I explained that this quarantine and backdating is just how we’re having to handle the situation. Everyone has been really understanding, and I think that’s because the whole world had to change what it was doing.”

Staff member Stefanie Behe, who was helping check in books after quarantine, is comfortable with the safety procedures. “These books are probably safer than anything you touch in the grocery store. And everybody’s so happy they can get books now!”

Marcus Roberson also has seen patrons’ concerns dispelled after they hear about the process. “I had someone on the phone who was worried about pickup and return, and when I said, ‘This is how it works,’ they said, ‘Oh! That is awesome.’”

At the CALS Sanders Library in Sherwood, assistant manager Gina Carrico described a similar returns process, including the use of disinfectant spray and wipes to clean the cart used to unload the dropbox. Staff unloads the book drop with the same care and caution used at the other branch libraries, equipped with masks and gloves.

“We bring them in to quarantine and we date them when they should be checked in,” Carrico said. “When anyone calls to ask if the book drop is open, we tell them that anything they drop off will stay on their account for four days, because we’re quarantining it, but when we check it in we will backdate it to the day of the return.”

We left our socially distanced tours of the returns process with even more respect for our CALS staff and their care for our library users during this challenging time. You can be assured that these staff members are doing their best to continue providing you with library resources in a safe way.

Find out more about how to order books, DVDS, and other hard copies of library materials through curbside service. Our digital collection offers a vast selection of free downloadable e-books, audio books, movies and tv shows, music, magazines, and online courses.