Staff handling of records

FOI request reference: F0062897
Publication date: September 2020

I would like to know what measures you have in place for TNA staff on the care of documents since the Coronavirus started in March. I am particularly interested in whether files that are handled by a member of staff are then put into quarantine for three days (as for researchers) before another member of staff can handle them.
Please find below a copy of a document titled ‘Record Quarantine at The National Archives’ which was circulated to all staff via our intranet and which forms the basis of all document handling measures employed at The National Archives in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
As part of our preparation to reopen The National Archives staff in the Collection Care Department investigated mitigation strategies to reduce the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus, whilst also protecting our collection material. We looked at the latest scientific research, Government guidelines and guidance from the wider heritage sector to create record quarantine guidance for The National Archives.

So, what is record quarantine? This is where records that have been handled by staff or readers are isolated for a period of time and cannot be handled or reproduced for other staff or readers. The isolation period reduces the risk of the COVID-19 virus being transmitted from a record surface or box to a human.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that it may be possible for COVID-19 to be spread via contact with surfaces and materials containing active virus. In theory, if an infected person coughs or exhales on files or boxes, these could become contaminated and carry the virus, although the risk is much lower than other transmission pathways, such as respiratory close contact. The virus can only survive on surfaces for a limited amount of time, so by quarantining records the virus will deactivate naturally, meaning it can no longer be spread via the surface to human. To ensure quarantine is an effective mitigation measure, records are quarantined after being handled by readers or staff.

Record quarantine also ensures that we are following best practice in caring for the records. Collection material or boxes cannot be disinfected like other surfaces, such as tables or doorknobs, because the chemicals found in disinfectants can cause irreversible damage to the collection material.

The quarantine process outlined:
• Document Services staff prepare records 72 hours in advance of the reader handling the material. Only boxed records or individual files will be delivered to the reading room.
• The documents are delivered on a trolley and each reader is allocated an individual trolley, with individual reading aids.
• The reader is asked to unpack the box and repack it when they are finished.
• Once a reader or staff member has finished using a record, the record will be quarantined.
• An area has been designated for document quarantine with clear signage for staff.
• If a document is quarantined it will not be available to order for 72 hours on DORIS or Discovery.
• Additional mitigation strategies have been put in place to reduce the risk of transmission to Document Services staff handling records, outlined in their risk assessments.

Record Quarantine Times
We know from the available scientific research that the COVID-19 virus can survive on different materials for different amount of times, and that it can remain active longer on plastic than paper or cardboard. To encompass our vast collection, the Collection Care Department have recommended a 72-hour quarantine period for handled collection material. The 72 hours takes into account the varied material found within our collection, which includes paper, plastic and parchment and is in line with findings from the REALM research project. The 72-hour period also aligns with our peer institutions like the British Library, Libraries Ireland and Library and Archives Canada.

Although our collection varies in material, the vast majority of records are housed in cardboard boxes. Where the viral persistence of cardboard (i.e. how long the virus is active on the surface) has been tested, research has found that no viable virus was detected on cardboard after 24 hours. Using the research as guidance, a quarantine period of 24 hours for cardboard boxes ensures the virus deactivates naturally and can allow Document Services staff to return records to the repositories after a 24-hour quarantine period, with additional mitigation strategies outlined in their risk assessments.

Like much of the guidance around COVID-19, we will to continue to review new research, Government guidelines and our own practices to ensure the continued safety of our staff, readers and the collection material.