The REALM project: What we’ve learned and what’s next

When the REALM project began in April 2020, little was known about the COVID-19 virus. Now, more than a year later, REALM has completed eight laboratory tests, synthesized emerging research findings, and produced toolkit resources for archives, libraries, and museums. In this next phase, REALM is exploring additional questions as vaccines have become available, SARS-CoV-2 variants are on the rise, and local guidelines and restrictions change. Here, I’ll discuss what the REALM project has learned over the past year and outline our next phase of work. 

Graphic illustrating REALM partners working together

What we’ve learned in Phases 1 and 2

For more than one year, the REALM project has followed closely the science on SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. “Following the science” has involved tracking an array of disciplines such as microbiology, epidemiology, immunology, biochemistry, physics, data science, social psychology, and public health—each of which has studied different parts of the problem and offered findings that did not always fit together neatly. In the first two phases of the project, we focused our attention on three questions: (1) How is the virus transmitted; (2) what is the risk of transmission via materials; and (3) what are effective, pragmatic ways to reduce risk of transmission? Toward this effort, OCLC and IMLS partnered with Battelle to conduct a series of eight laboratory tests on materials commonly found in archives, libraries, and museums to study how long the virus remains active on surfaces.  

There has yet to be a research study that provides definitive evidence to resolve those questions completely. And, while we all have wished for clear and consistent answers during this pandemic, we’ve come to terms with the fact that this is not how science works. Rather, there has been an accumulation of evidence that, when pulled together, tells a story about COVID-19 around which a growing majority of researchers have coalesced. As we’ve seen recently with updated communications from the CDC and WHO, there is general agreement that SARS-CoV-2 travels through the air easily—both through large respiratory droplets and through small aerosolized particles—and that transmission via materials and surfaces is a less common source of COVID-19 infection. (Some scientists claim that there is essentially no risk of transmission via materials based on studies of other viruses such as those that cause the common cold or HIV.)

While there are still unanswered questions about transmission and the infectious dose of SARS-CoV-2, there is much greater understanding about how to reduce the risk of transmission when not vaccinated: wear a mask as guided, maintain physical distance from others, wash your hands, and choose settings that offer plenty of fresh air and sunlight. We have not typically needed expensive new gadgets for any of this (except, perhaps, for dealing with inadequate indoor ventilation systems), but have had to build new personal, social, and work habits.

Although promoting those new habits and adapted practices has had its challenges, from our conversations with people who work in archives, libraries, and museums, we hear mostly that COVID-19 cases among staff or visitors cannot be traced back to their institution’s operational policies and procedures. We frequently hear of community members who express their gratitude to their local institutions for putting health and safety first, and who are appreciative of the services and programs provided during the pandemic, even those that had to be adapted from in person to virtual.

We recognize that because the science on COVID-19 has moved swiftly and been covered in the media every day for more than a year, some people may be holding on to outdated findings or “hot takes” from early on. An example often given in the media is the idea of “people still bleaching their groceries” or communities barring the use of beaches and parks. For libraries processing millions of checked-out items last year, quarantining was a relatively simple method for handling books, DVDs, and other collection materials suspected of contamination without damaging them or investing in expensive products. As more research has accumulated to show that fomites—that is, infected objects or materials—are not a key source of virus transmission, many libraries have determined that quarantine of handled collection items is not necessary or could be limited to items where contamination is suspected (e.g., someone who is not vaccinated sneezed on it). The REALM project will continue to encourage institutions to work with their health departments and consult CDC guidance when making decisions, and to be aware that this official guidance will continue to evolve in response to new knowledge about the virus and the status of the pandemic in our communities.

Looking to what’s next in Phase 3

While we have all learned a great deal over this past year, many questions remain about how institutions can operate successfully during a public health crisis such as this. There is great interest among archive, library, and museum stakeholders to gather and synthesize what our sectors have learned over the past year to proactively help build institutional capacities and be better prepared to respond to future public health crises.

Also, with the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, a whole host of new questions have arisen around the policies and operational considerations for working with staff and community members who may or may not be vaccinated and as cities, states, and countries relax protocols and restrictions for the public.

In this third phase of the REALM project, we’ll continue to follow the science and provide toolkit resources on topics that are relevant to operations of archives, libraries, and museums. Our Scientific and Operations Working Groups will be diving into some specific impact areas, including managing physical facilities (with air ventilation being one key concern) and capacity building for offering more robust and sustainable digital services and programming. We’ll also be examining more closely the inequities within communities and institutions around these topics to determine pathways for more equitable outcomes. Battelle will continue to produce research briefings on COVID-19 science—they are currently focused on the three “Vs”: vaccines, variants, and ventilation. We will continue to accumulate and summarize the understanding around these topics as toolkit resources. To be notified of new resources when they are released, subscribe to the REALM mailing list.

For those of you attending ALA, we hope you will come to our June 24 REALM discussion panel that will feature examples of museums working in partnership with public libraries. And archivists are encouraged to come to the June 3 SAA virtual forum on the topic. If you are interested in having a REALM project representative speak with your staff or membership, please get in touch.

3 Comments on “The REALM project: What we’ve learned and what’s next”

  1. Hi Sharon. Thank you for the update. I’ve read the REALM reports and I’m having trouble deciding whether or not to continue quarantining books and research files after public use. It seems that some are still doing it. Do you have any examples of policies that you think are good examples? Thanks

    1. We are still quarantining. We began because REALM showed that there could be living virus at the six-day point. We feel like we should wait for REALM to show that this isn’t the case before we cease that practice. Safety first.

    2. Extended quarantine procedures were especially useful for the period of time when surface transmission was thought to be a primary way for people to get infected with COVID-19. With the growing consensus among researchers that surface transmission is a lower risk with this virus, then simply following the practice of washing hands before and after handling collection items – along with mask wearing and social distancing while vaccination efforts are still underway – is what more libraries are deciding is a sufficient response.

      Here is a recent example of a library in Connecticut that has evolved its practices iteratively in response to emerging findings:

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