Reopening Collections

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Here we present a checklist of items to consider for reopening collections after institutional or departmental closures, specifically when circumstances do not allow some or all staff to be on site. This page was created as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in closures of collections across the globe. The plenary session at the 2020 SPNHC & ICOM NATHIST virtual meeting was dedicated to reopening collections and can be viewed on the SPNHC YouTube channel.


Breda Zimkus


Various emergencies, including acts of nature, accidents, technological emergencies, and military or terrorist attack-related incidents, may close either entire institutions or specific collections. Institutions may suffer damage or roadways may be inaccessible due to man-made incidents or natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, or wildfires. In addition, public health emergencies may require staff to stay home to prevent or contain outbreaks. We have learned many lessons from events over the last twenty years, including terrorist attacks on September 11th, large-scale blackouts, and the COVID-19 pandemic. For related topics, see Emergency Management, Disaster Planning, and Continuity of Operations.

Reopening Collections

The system used by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for reopening workplaces consists of five steps. They include:

  • Hazard elimination, which means keeping employees home, a tactic that works for some, but not others.
  • Personnel substitution, in this case initially bringing back just those key employees who need to be physically present to get and keep the collections operational.
  • Engineering controls, including healthy-building strategies such as increasing the flow of outside air, using portable air purifiers, and swapping existing filters in air circulating systems for ones that can capture smaller particles.
  • Administrative controls, such as de-densify buildings by having portions of the workforce come in on alternate days or staggering shifts within a day. This might also include spreading workers out in space and limiting the use of conference rooms for large gatherings.
  • Use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as the now-familiar cloth face coverings, respirators, and other gear in common areas and situations where other controls don’t achieve the required level of safety.

There are additional factors that collections should also consider for closures associated with public health emergencies:

  • Establishing good cleaning and disinfecting protocols, especially for high-touch surfaces, is prudent on reopening.
  • Thorough inspections and cleaning may be needed before areas can be opened to the public.

Managing Collections After Closure Due to Public Health Emergencies

  • Collections may need to consider modifying protocols to include an isolation period of collection objects after each use. See the information presented by the Canadian Conservation Institution about Caring for Heritage Collections during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
  • Collection material could temporarily be isolated in separate spaces to allow viruses to inactivate naturally. [Round 1 Tests] of the Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) COVID-19 research project included a natural attenuation study to determine how long some commonly circulated library materials would need to be quarantined before being returned to public circulation. The SARS-CoV-2 virus was not detectable on the materials after three days, demonstrating that standard office temperature and relative humidity conditions typically achievable by any air-conditioned office space allows natural attenuation of the virus present on these common materials after three days of quarantine. The virulent SARS-CoV-2 virus was applied to five materials held at standard room temperature and humidity conditions:
  1. Hardback book cover (buckram cloth)
  2. Softback book cover
  3. Plain paper pages inside a closed book
  4. Plastic book covering (biaxially oriented polyester film)
  5. DVD case
  • If separate spaces are not available, collection material could be returned to their normal storage space, but staff should consider ways to identify items, such as bagging or labeling.

Receiving Incoming Collection Items After Closure Due to Public Health Emergencies

  • Isolating incoming materials, including loan returns and new acquisitions, is recommended to protect staff and allow any potential viruses to naturally degrade as putting disinfected or sanitizers onto collection materials is not recommended.
  • A temporary isolation room or specific designated space should be designated for incoming material.
  • Personal protective equipment should be used to handle all packages when received.
  • Packages may need to be unpacked to ensure that the contents are in good condition, but ideally packages can be left unopened to minimize staff exposure.
  • A system should be used to track the time that materials are isolated, which may be as simple as taping a note with the date received on the package.