How to Disinfect Books: A Discussion

Disclaimer: The information in this article about how to disinfect books should not be taken as health advice, but is intended to be a collection of advice from various sources that includes known and ongoing studies in how to reduce exposure to various viruses, including COVID-19. Refer to cdc.gov for more information, or seek medical advice if you think you might have come into contact with COVID-19.

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make one stop and think about all of the surfaces a person touches in a day…and how many of those surfaces could be a possible exposure point to all sorts of germs. Millions of people rely on the library for materials beyond books, but as libraries reopen we all want to know how to disinfect books we share so that books and stories are the only thing spreading through the community.

The question of how to sanitize books is particularly tough because of the obvious: Books are made of paper and sanitizing products can damage paper. Nonetheless, cleanliness is something that libraries have been thinking about for a long time, even before COVID-19 appeared. Because of this, if you’re concerned about disease spread you should chat with your librarians to understand what measures they’re taking, and so that you don’t do anything that might actually damage a material. (In general, librarians prefer that you let them take care of book sanitation and maintenance because they have their own protocols and tricks, and if you damage a book by accident you’ll have to pay to replace it.)

Whether you’re keen on returning to the library, or picking up books from your local Little Free Library, or you just want to swap titles with a friend, here’s how to do so safely!

Be Careful About Using Lysol Wipes or Other Cleaners on Books

While it is true that some libraries (mine included) use Lysol wipes on book covers, you should be careful about doing so, and know that the ALA does not officially recommend it. Most book covers have a shiny finish that make the cover somewhat resistant to moisture, but it’s best to not get them too wet. Not all dust jackets will be resistant to moisture, either—it depends on the paper. Most libraries cover their hardcovers with a plastic, water resistant covering that can be gently wiped down with a damp Lysol wipe or cloth. Some libraries even cover their paperback covers with sticky plastic contact paper, to help preserve the life of the book. These covers can be wiped down gently as well, as long as you take care to not wet the pages or interior of the book. If you decide to wipe down your book covers, make sure you stand the books upright so that the covers can fully dry before shelving, otherwise you can create the perfect environment for some moldering pages—or the covers will dry and stick together, and you’ll have to tear them apart, further damaging your books.

In general, my library has used Lysol wipes to clean down the books that are returned in the book drop if the covers are sticky or dirty, or if it’s flu season. We do this primarily for staff protection as we check in and shelve a book, because even if you do wipe your book covers down and properly dry them, that doesn’t take care of the insides of the book, which contain hundred if not thousands of square inches of paper surfaces that germs can hang out on. Which leads me to my next point…

white wooden bookshelf
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Time Is the Best Disinfectant

No one likes to hear it, but letting your books chill in their own quarantine is the best way to ensure you’re not passing along germs. The ALA is recommending that libraries put materials into a 24–48 hour quarantine when they’re returned to the library. This is based on an early study that estimates that COVID-19 virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours. Cold and flu viruses can also live on surfaces, sometimes for up to a week, but are generally infectious for 48 hours, according to the CDC.

The best way to ensure you’re not going to be infected from a shared book is to put it in its own quarantine for at least 48 hours before cracking it open. Many libraries are quarantining their books for 24–48 books upon return, but I recommend you also quarantine your books for 48 hours when you pick them up. Pick up your holds at the library while wearing gloves and a mask, and then stick them in a designated quarantine bag (that you wash in between uses) and don’t touch them until 48 hours have passed! Ask about your library’s material quarantine procedures, but don’t trust that simply because they quarantine returned materials that you’ll be safe—staff could inadvertently infect materials, and so can browsing patrons.

Don’t Apply UV Light or Microwave Books

Many people have wondered about non-liquid disinfectant tools, and unfortunately, they’re just not safe for books. According to the ALA, UV light is not recommended because of the high exposure time that is required to kill COVID-19 and other viruses. Not to mention that UV light can only kill the viruses it can touch, and there are too many nooks and crannies between pages and binding that can hold germs. Plus, longterm exposure to UV light can damage a book.

You also do not want to apply heat to your book for any reason. Not only is this extremely damaging to the book, it’s a fire hazard! One thing you for sure should never, ever do is microwave a book, like a patron at Kent District Library attempted to do recently—most library books contain hidden sensors that are made with metal and therefore are unsafe in microwaves! Always assume your library book has one of these, even if you can’t find it. (Librarians make them difficult to find and remove on purpose!)

Don’t Share Materials If You Are Sick

In general, you shouldn’t be in contact with books that aren’t your own if you’re sick—it’s just common courtesy. That especially goes if you think you might have come in contact with COVID-19! It’s tough to be away from the library right now, but use it as an opportunity to reread your collection or get caught up on your TBR. But if you do share books, remember above all else that they need their own quarantine period, too!