NSW Health has drafted guidelines to help libraries function in the era of coronavirus but has not released any formal public health order about how they should operate.
Dr Vallance said most of the recommendations were common sense but the quarantine rule was “a little controversial”.
The librarian’s recommendations will be left to each local council to implement for public libraries in their area. Parramatta Council confirmed that browsing would not be allowed in its libraries to start, while City of Sydney said it was “working on a plan on easing restrictions across its libraries network”.
NSW Public Libraries Association president Dallas Tout said quarantining all books touched by patrons would be near impossible to enforce and would make it “very difficult in a practical sense in running a public library.”
Mr Tout called on the state government to provide clear and specific guidelines as soon as possible to allow libraries to prepare for their opening day.
Australian National University infectious diseases expert Sanjaya Senanayake said the strict measure assumed everyone entering libraries had COVID-19.
“I think they could achieve the same goal by emphasising the use of good hand hygiene without necessarily having to put away the books for that period of time,” Professor Senanayake said.
“If someone picks out all the books and the books are put away for 24 hours, that is difficult.”
Libraries, as with museums and galleries which will be able to open from the same day, will have to allow for four square metres per person, install distance markers and introduce enhanced cleaning under the state government’s guidance.
The State Library of NSW will initially admit just 200 people at a time, a steep decrease from the 4000 daily patrons it attracted before the coronavirus pandemic. The facility has been closed for more than two months, and for the first time since the Spanish flu twice forced it to shut in 1919.
Visitors will be required to register in advance online for a 3½-hour morning or afternoon timeslot, with only the reading rooms available for personal laptop usage.
“We’ll very gradually ramp things up [and] hopefully by the middle of July we’re able to reopen our exhibition galleries,” he said.
Any moves to regulate browsing would also leave libraries at odds with bookstores, many of which have allowed customers to continue to access books while introducing other safety measures including social distancing, limits on the number of people allowed in stores and disinfectant stations.
Abbey’s managing director Alan Abbey said quarantining books that had been touched was pushing restrictions to the “enth degree”.
“We certainly haven’t even dreamt of that. It would be nigh on impossible to keep track of books that customers have touched and to try and quarantine them,” Mr Abbey said. “We’re not going to do that and nor do any of our customers expect us to do that.”
Josh Dye is a news reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.