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COVID Research and REALM

Quick summaries, full lab reports, and the raw data sets are available on the REALM website at https://www.oclc.org/realm/home.html.

How Did REALM Come About?

At the end of March 2020, as the novel coronavirus was moving through the US in what was to be the first COVID-19 surge, the Institute of Museum and Libraries Services (IMLS) had just hosted a webinar on managing collections during an active pandemic. During the session, an epidemiologist and a health scientist from the US Centers for Disease Control provided guidance and covered topics such as creating or updating your institution’s emergency operations plan, staying in close communication with your local health department, and helping prevent spread of the virus by encouraging staff and visitors to practice frequent handwashing and social distancing. They also recommended frequent cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces with EPA-approved products, and to leave any room or item alone for 24 hours when there was possible contamination by someone infected. The interpretation of “high-touch” and “possible contamination” led many webinar attendees to wonder if well-trafficked public spaces and frequently handled collection and exhibit materials in libraries and museums fell into this category. Ensuing discussions led the IMLS to see the potential for a COVID-19 research project focusing on the operations, spaces, collections, and services specific to archives, libraries, and museums.

Who is Involved in REALM?

On April 22, 2020, IMLS announced a partnership between the IMLS, the scientific research institute Battelle, and the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), a library technology and research organization. Battelle has an extensive history doing research on emerging and infectious diseases such as Ebola, West Nile, influenza, and tuberculosis. OCLC has managed dozens of grant-funded projects and collaborates across a network of thousands of libraries throughout the world. To support the partnership and its decision-making, the IMLS also coordinated the formation of an executive project steering committee and working groups composed of representatives from member organizations, consortia, and individual institutions, as well as subject matter experts. By the end of May, the partnership had launched the REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums, or REALM, project.

What is the Scope of REALM?

The REALM project was designed to produce and distribute science-based information about how materials can be handled to mitigate exposure to coronavirus in staff and visitors of archives, libraries, and museums. A goal of the project is to better understand the virus in ways that will help inform local decision-making around operational practices and policies. The main questions that have shaped the project’s research activities are the following:

  • How is SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, transmitted?
  • Are contaminated surfaces and materials contributing to COVID-19 infections?
  • What are effective prevention and decontamination tactics to mitigate transmission?

These questions were explored in two ways during the first two phases of the project: Systematic literature reviews and laboratory testing. In addition to the scientific research, the project is also collecting and reviewing relevant informational resources created by other organizations, and sharing illustrative examples of policies, practices, and procedures that archives, libraries, and museums have developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The other main activity of the project is to create toolkit resources to synthesize the research into simplified language and imagery that can be used to support conversations with stakeholders and community members.

What is not in scope for the project is to develop one-size-fits-all recommendations or guidelines. Institutions vary significantly in their resources, settings, services, and priorities; and there is also a wide range of advisories and orders in place at local, state, and national levels. Therefore, each institution needs to develop policies and procedures in response to its local community needs and conditions and take into account pragmatic considerations of risk and available resources.

Staff and leadership of organizations are under a great deal of stress while trying to find and interpret credible information and make decisions in the middle of crisis. Naturally, individuals also want to know how best to protect their own health and the health of others. All of us working in the field are trying to do the “right” thing to reduce any risk to the staff and users who depend on services, facilities, and collections. In an atmosphere of urgency, uncertainty, and ambiguity, figuring out what is the best course of action can be very complicated. We have had to learn that during a public health crisis it is normal to have to make decisions based on incomplete or conflicting information. As the authors of the BMJ article Managing uncertainty in the COVID-19 era suggest, we are learning to “make sense of complex situations by acknowledging the complexity, admitting ignorance, exploring paradoxes, and reflecting collectively.”

What Can We Learn from the Scientific Literature on SARS-CoV-2?

The REALM project has published two systematic literature reviews thus far, one in June and another in October of 2020. These reports synthesize research on the virus that was published through mid-August. A third review is currently underway and will be published this winter.

We still do not know several things about SARS-CoV-2; this is important to recognize when discussing, considering, and making decisions about your institution’s and your community’s policies and procedures. For example, we don’t know how many virus particles an infected person leaves behind on an object through such actions as sneezing or coughing. Although research and some educated guesses exist, there is no definitive answer. Another unknown is how many virus particles you can pick up from an object, and whether that transference is contributing to infections. Also, scientists have not yet determined the human infectious dose for this virus: we don’t know how much of the virus you need to ingest to contract COVID-19.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has shown to be quite infectious, as demonstrated by the speed in which it has surged across countries around the world. The primary form of transmission is now generally understood to be through contaminated water droplets expelled when people infected with COVID-19 sneeze, cough, sing, talk, and/or breathe. The practice of limiting close (less than six feet) or extended (more than 15 minutes) contact between people is intended to reduce the risk of this type of transmission.

Evidence has also suggested that another likely pathway for spreading the virus is by breathing air in which the virus is suspended after some sort of aerosolization event, such as a sneeze. Aerosols have received increased attention since the summer, and some researchers believe they may be a significant source of COVID-19 transmission. Others suggest that more study is needed before any conclusions are drawn.

While touching fomites, or objects contaminated by virus-containing droplets, was thought to be a significant pathway in the early months of the pandemic, this has been a difficult pathway to trace when there is so much direct people-to-people transmission also occurring. As concerns about airborne transmission have grown, less attention has been given to studying the role of fomites in the COVID-19 pandemic. The REALM lab testing on fomites has contributed to this area of scientific inquiry.

Environmental factors have been identified as influential in the spread of the SARS-CoV-2, though additional research is needed to understand the complexities of these variables’ impact. Higher humidity and temperatures show evidence of hastening the deactivation of the virus; lower humidity and temperatures slow the speed of deactivation, so the virus remains infectious for a longer period under these conditions. Fresh air free of pollutants reduces transmission of the virus more than “dirty” air does. Some evidence has suggested that inadequate HVAC systems and other air circulation mechanisms can contribute to viral spread if not configured to maximize air exchange to refresh indoor spaces frequently with clean air. However, until further research defines the risk of people contracting COVID-19 through airborne virus, the extent to which these systems contribute to infection is unclear.

The research that has emerged reinforces the effectiveness of certain low-cost, relatively easy prevention tactics, especially handwashing or hand sanitizing, physical distancing, and wearing a mask. When a room, surface, or object is suspected of being contaminated by a person infected with COVID-19, increased heat, and use of disinfectants identified by the EPA have been shown to be effective decontamination practices. Important considerations in evaluating any type of agent or treatment for use are described in various resources; the National Park Service (NPS), the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), and the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) offer guidance on caring for collection items and exhibit spaces so as not to damage materials or the staff handling them. The REALM website points to these and other resources.

What Are the Findings from REALM Lab Testing?

The project is currently scoped to conduct ten tests. Six have been completed and their findings were published between June and November 2020. The seventh and eighth tests took place in December, and the remaining two tests will be defined and scheduled based on those results. 

Two types of tests are used to measure the presence of the virus. One detects genetic matter associated with the virus but does not distinguish between active (i.e., infectious) and inactive particles. The other measures the amount of active virus by mixing it into a test cell culture and noting whether the virus infects the cells. The Battelle research method for REALM measures infectious virus, but the tests are not able to determine whether the number of active particles present would be enough to infect a human being with COVID-19.

The first six tests examined five materials selected from recommendations provided by the REALM Steering Committee and working groups. Three tests focused on commonly circulated public library items, such as different types of books and DVDs. The other tests studied plastic materials, textiles, and hard surfaces respectively. Many of the materials were donated by the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Library of Congress. Other materials, such as some of the textiles, were purchased new from vendors.

The Battelle lab technicians cut each material into coupons and applied the infectious virus to the surface at a known concentration in a synthetic saliva solution. They put the coupons into a controlled environmental chamber in stacked and unstacked configurations. The first six tests were conducted in conditions that simulated a standard office environment of 68°F to 75°F (22 ± 2°C) and 30 to 50% relative humidity. At preselected timepoints, the scientists measured the quantity of active virus on the coupons to document its attenuation (or drop) over time. The timepoints for each test were selected with two concerns in mind: the desired outcome of seeing the virus fall below the detection limit within the test timespan; and the timeframe representing a practical quarantine period for materials suspected of contamination.

Quantitation Limit

The culture method cannot be used to measure a virus count below 26 particles. This is called the “limit of quantitation.” Below this point, researchers must look at the test coupons under a microscope and note the presence or absence of virus on each coupon visually. If virus is not observed on any of the coupons, the result is recorded as being below the limit of detection.

Results of the first six REALM tests are shown here. Quick summaries, full lab reports, and the raw data sets are available on the REALM website.

What is Next for REALM?

Research is expected to continue for the first half of 2021; new factors to consider include the emergence of vaccines, the impact of the second deadly winter surge, impacts induced by sliding along a confusing continuum of “open” and “closed” for institutions and their communities, and expanding experience that decision makers are gaining in making risk assessments and contingency plans. The project will continue to host and attend virtual speaking engagements to share information and answer questions to allow and foster listening, learning, and adapting among all in the cultural heritage fields.

—Sharon Steams, OCLC Project Director, REALM, streamss@oclc.org

Mosaic Conservation Training Materials Online Following the MOSAIKON Initiative

At the IIC Edinburgh 2020 Congress, I presented a paper on the Getty Conservation Institute’s (GCI) recent training activities regarding the conservation of mosaics in storage, under the umbrella of the MOSAIKON Initiative. The training took place at the Moroccan site of Volubilis, in collaboration with the Direction du Patrimoine Culturel, and involved technician-level government employees from North African countries who had already participated in previous GCI-MOSAIKON courses on mosaics in situ. A similar training program is planned for 2021, in collaboration with MOSAIKON partner ICCROM and the General Directorate of Antiquities in Lebanon for trainees from Middle Eastern countries. This course will be the last official MOSAIKON training activity, together with a separate advanced training course in Jordan for site managers on protective shelters and reburial as preventive measures for conserving mosaics on sites.

As MOSAIKON is coming to an end, the GCI has recently made didactic materials available for free download on its website in the form of 24 PowerPoint lessons developed for its technician training courses. They are accessible to all at https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/teaching/mosaics_conservation.html.

Together with the training handbook and reference documents already available on the website in three languages (English, French, and Arabic), https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/tech_training.html, the PowerPoint lessons are offered to the conservation field as a resource to support future training in mosaic conservation. The lessons are currently in French and English, with an Arabic translation expected to be available sometime in 2021.

The MOSAIKON Initiative was launched in 2008 as a partnership between the GCI, the Getty Foundation, ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), and the ICCM (International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics) to advance the conservation and management of archaeological mosaics in the southern and eastern Mediterranean regions. To achieve its aims, the initiative has focused on training, developing locally sustainable conservation practices, strengthening professional networks, and promoting exchange of information.

The GCI has largely concentrated its training efforts at two levels: technician-level practitioners who work on mosaics in situ and site managers who are responsible for the overall management of archaeological sites with mosaics. The 22-week technician training courses, divided into four modules and conducted over a two-year period with practical conservation work continuing between each module, have trained over 30 government employees from eight countries, strengthening their institutional capacity to conserve their mosaic heritage. The regional courses for site managers have been organized as initial three-week courses including a week-long workshop the following year with mentored mosaic management assignments in between. The three site management courses, carried out in collaboration with various partner institutions, have trained over 50 government employees from 15 countries. 

With funding from the Getty Foundation, other MOSAIKON partners and consultants have developed similar intensive training courses for museum professionals and conservation technicians for the care of mosaics in museums. These courses have resulted not only in trained teams of technicians capable of conserving and displaying lifted mosaics in museums and storage, but also in the creation of national mosaic conservation “ateliers” or workshops in Algeria and Lebanon.

Overall, MOSAIKON has now trained 235 mosaic conservation specialists from 17 countries, many of whom have received advanced training so as to become trainers themselves. The result is a more robust community of practice that is better equipped to confront present and future challenges.

Further information on training courses and other activities of the MOSAIKON initiative can be found at:  https://www.getty.edu/conservation/our_projects/education/mosaikon/.

–Thomas Roby, Senior Project Specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute, troby@getty.edu

Note: A longer version of this article will be published in IIC’s February-March 2021 News in Conservation, Issue 82.

Materia: Journal of Technical Art History

A new open-source, peer reviewed journal, Materia: Journal of Technical Art History, is planning to publish its inaugural issue in spring 2021. This biannual publication will provide an online, open-access platform devoted to the technical study of art objects.

Bringing together the disciplines of conservation, conservation science, art history, and related disciplines, Materia will be among the first peer-reviewed publications dedicated solely to this steadily growing field of interdisciplinary research. To read more about Materia, visit: https://materia-a23760.webflow.io/. If you need to reach out, write to: contact@materiajournal.com.

Editorial Team

The editorial team for Materia is formed by:

  • Bianca Garcia, Balboa Art Conservation Center (San Diego, CA)
  • Courtney Books, St. Louis Art Museum (St. Louis, MO)
  • Cynthia Prieur, Queen’s University (Kingston, ON)
  • Emma Jansson, Stockholm University (Stockholm, Sweden)
  • Julie Ribits, Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University (Bloomington, IN)
  • Lucia Bay, Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA)
  • Morgan Wylder, Balboa Art Conservation Center (San Diego, CA)
  • Roxy Sperber, Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields (Indianapolis, IN)

Translations: The BPG Wiki

Over the past year, the BPG Wiki has been working to increase the diversity and accessibility of content on the wiki. As part of this effort, multiple BPG Wiki pages have been translated by an amazing group of volunteers. 

The process of translating a BPG Wiki page begins with a translation by a conservator or a group of conservators who are fluent in both the designated language and English. The translated content is then reviewed by at least one other conservator who is also fluent in both languages. 

  • Lydia Lyu (吕晓蛬) completed the first translation on the wiki, a translation of the newly reworked Drying and Flattening page into Chinese. 
  • This translation was reviewed by Hsin-Chen Tsai (齍©跍). 
  • Lydia and Hsin-Chen were then joined by Hester Yip (蝔謕磠) and Daran Qin (藢达窴) to translate the BPG Glossary of Terms into both Simplified and Traditional Chinese. 
  • Wan-ping (PJ) Chen (蠊駜讔) then reviewed the Traditional Chinese translation while Yuhui Liu  (刘钰) reviewed the Simplified Chinese translation.

Currently, there are two other BPG Wiki page translations in progress; the Drying and Flattening page is being translated into Spanish, and the Inpainting page into Chinese.

Please join us in congratulating our colleagues for this excellent contribution to the field! If you are interested in contributing to future translation efforts, please get in touch with us at bookandpapergroup.wiki@gmail.com.

—Diane E. Knauf (paper) and Michelle C. Smith (book),
BPG Wiki Coordinators


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