Please Stop Microwaving Your Library Books

A COVID-era public service announcement

As I perched like a fly on the wall of literary Twitter, a posting caught my eye: “Please don’t put a library book in the microwave to kill the coronavirus,” tweeted a user called Library Lady. “It sets fire to the barcode we put on the book.” The tweet echoed an earlier viral Facebook post from a librarian in Michigan.

Because apparently this is a thing people are doing! “Excellent,” replied Facebook user Samantha Stanko, “‘Microwaving library books to rid them of Coronavirus was on my 2020 bingo card.”

And unless your library still uses the stamp and card system, the results are incendiary. To scan books at check out and prevent patrons from walking out with hidden library books, libraries have equipped most books with a metallic radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that’s not exactly microwave-safe.

But it’s beside the point whether or not library books belong in the microwave. According to the CDC, the likelihood of transmitting the virus on surfaces is low. USA Today reports that the virus that causes COVID-19 is undetectable on books and other semi-porous materials after three days. Guidance from the Institute of Museum and Library Services recommends leaving returned books untouched for at least 24 hours.

“You don’t have to really worry about finding ways to disinfect those materials,” noted David Berendes, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “The virus, if it’s present, would be present in very low quantities and would die off pretty quickly.”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken to a number of librarians, none of whom were too hot for me to quote them in a story about exploding library books. But they were all quick to assure their patrons that their books are safe. In my experience, most libraries cover their books in plastic wrap to minimize wear and tear and which, luckily, also allows for easy disinfection, assuming you’re able to get your contaminated hands on some Clorox wipes.

And most libraries have enacted the recommended quarantine period. One branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia where I’m a member even quarantines returns for a week. The scariest thing about libraries right now is factoring that quarantine period into my schedule so I don’t get fined.

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

One thought on “Please Stop Microwaving Your Library Books

  • September 28, 2020 at 9:53 am

    Hi Katie,

    The Free Library of Philadelphia just went fine-free in February! You can keep your items for the full checkout, quarantining won’t give you fines.


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