People, Paper, Data: 
Disaster Planning for Libraries

To lose a library is a tragedy, the extent of which we do not realize until it is too late. Consider the treasures that a major library contains. At the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., we find collections of unique books, Rembrandt prints, early American photographs and maps, antique musical instruments, and the manuscripts of various presidents. How precious is Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862 after the Battle of Antietam? How could we replace Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, or George Washington’s twelve-page ink draft of his First Inaugural Address? 
The loss of these items is inconceivable, but always possible. Risks prevail at all libraries, from the largest facilities and collections in national capitals and at universities, to the smallest in rural communities.
Few libraries hold treasure troves as historically significant and valuable as those in the Library of Congress, but even the smallest public branch, school library or corporate information center can contain rare materials and resources essential for research, education and business. What disaster planning and recovery specialists face when dealing with a library are circumstances different from those in any other institution.
Nevertheless, the development of a library disaster plan involves the same conceptual model that planners use for many other institutions. The library must be prepared for a broad range of probable and possible emergencies before, during and after their occurrence. The safety of staff and patrons is paramount at all times; the security of buildings and collections, while vital, is secondary.
To cover contingencies before a disaster, an emergency preparedness program (EPP) is advisable. A library EPP begins with an analysis that considers regional, local and site-specific risks. For example, the regional risks that a library faces in Los Angeles include earthquake, fire, flooding, high winds, severe smog, and civil unrest.
Local risks are those prevailing in a particular neighborhood. For example, a library in a high-crime area will be more likely to sustain damage from arson and serious vandalism; a library in an outlying area might be at risk from brush fires spread by the dry Santa Ana winds. Libraries located in L.A.’s coastal areas must manage risks from landslides, sinking coastlines, and tsunamis.
As in most American cities, L.A.’s general public is aware of prevailing regional and local risks. Such risks often are part of a region’s history, and attract frequent media attention. Site-specific risks, however, are often unrecognized or neglected. At any library, site-specific risks arise from the age of the library building and the condition of its structural and non-structural components. Flooding and fire are the major risks to libraries all over the world, and should be included in every library risk analysis. There are also risks from heavy furniture such as shelving, file cabinets, counters, desks, and displays. The size and weight of these objects can hinder evacuations, emergency response and clean-up; in earthquake zones, they become even more serious hazards, along with the large panes of window glass that, under normal circumstances, provide readers with natural light.
L.A. librarians are wise to consider the history of disasters on their sites, with particular attention to the overall performance of their buildings during earthquakes, the age and condition of shelving units and other furniture, the availability of fire-fighting equipment, and the state of the plumbing not only in the public areas, but also in basements and staff work areas.
Human-caused risks prevail at any library that is open to the public. L.A. librarians are accustomed to patrons who are emotionally disturbed, drunk or rude; but they might not be sure how to handle an arsonist or a bomber.
Vandalism in the form of graffiti on a library wall does not merit disaster response, but the introduction of a virus into a library database requires immediate attention if the database is to maintain its integrity and accessibility. L.A. librarians will note that human-caused risks prevail at some sites more than others, and should insist on effective planning and procedures that address the risks at each specific site.
The second part of a library’s EPP is the mitigation program, the goals of which are risk reduction and loss prevention. Ideally this program will either prevent a disaster from occurring, or-in the case of a large natural disaster-lessen its effects when it strikes.
Mitigation at any site entails training. Every librarian should take a first aid course and know how to use a fire extinguisher. Every librarian should know how to manage an evacuation, handle a bomb threat, and call for the appropriate first responders. In some libraries, comprehensive orientation and training programs are open to all employees; other libraries depend on the personal initiative of employees to prepare themselves and the sites at which they work.
The most successful mitigation programs include well-organized training for all staff. Library directors and other senior managers are encouraged to show their support for the program by taking the training themselves.
Preventative maintenance is another essential element of a library’s mitigation program. Floods and leaks can be prevented through regular inspections of the plumbing, roofs, and windows. Frayed and faulty wiring should be replaced as soon as possible in order to mitigate the risk of fire. Since flooding and fire are the most common disasters in libraries, a preventative maintenance program that addresses these risks effectively will reduce the worst losses in most libraries.
Libraries in earthquake zones must consider the risk of falling shelves. The best way to prevent a shelf from collapsing during an earthquake is to moor it to the floor. Unfortunately, many library floors are not built to accept the addition of mooring, which includes large bolts and anchor panels. In older library buildings, shelves are often supported by cross-bracing and metal cables or strips running from the top of one shelf to the next.
While shelf-top supports will hold up shelving during a small earthquake, they often cannot sustain the pressure generated by a moderate or large earthquake. To mitigate this risk, libraries might have to consider a shelving replacement campaign. This is an expensive solution, but it is easier to accept before the shelving has collapsed than after. Moreover, on some sites the replacement of rickety shelves is the only way to reduce risks to library employees and patrons. When a shelf weighing several tons collapses on a hapless researcher, the results can be lethal.
Another problem in earthquake zones is glass. Modern libraries often contain huge windows that brighten the decor and create a pleasant work environment. Glass walls provide a sense of openness as well as sound control and privacy. To mitigate this risk, librarians should consider barriers such as venetian blinds or curtains. Even a thin gauze curtain can stop a large quantity of glass debris from flying into a public area or busy work space, and does not have to detract from the atmosphere in normal circumstances.
Mitigation measures for library computer systems include regular back-up of essential data, as well as up-to-date firewalls for all library databases accessible through the Internet. Increasingly libraries are closing their card catalogues and providing online systems that are more convenient and less labor-intensive. While an electronic catalogue is a wonderful research tool, it is vulnerable to a variety of risks that demand a carefully-organized back-up routine and the librarians’ vigilance.
Hackers are a growing risk to library systems, but librarians should remember that much damage to systems is due to simple accidents. Planners refer to the Whoops! factor when they describe an incident in which a librarian trips over a cable and disables an entire library network, or knocks a PC off a counter and loses three years of work, or accidentally activates the sprinkler system in the computer room and drenches a new set of servers. Such accidents are common; fortunately, serious losses can be avoided through simple precautions.
Cables should be laid in such a way that people cannot trip on them; all hardware should be moored to supporting surfaces; and any data stored in hardware located near a sprinkler system should be backed up at least daily. The best way to guard against the Whoops! factor is to apply common sense to human weakness at every opportunity.
Common sense also demands appropriate emergency supplies at each library site. Librarians will agree that a first aid kit is essential at any busy public site, but a kit is useful only if its user is skilled in the application of first aid. A pamphlet concerning emergency measures for heart attack victims can be informative, but library employees should not need to review it while a patron expires beside the reference desk. As the Baby Boomers grow older and become more susceptible to ill health, those in charge of public facilities such as libraries will be increasingly obliged to turn the first aid kit into a lifesaving tool by taking the necessary first aid courses. The first aid kit cannot save lives by itself.
Other emergency supplies includes fire extinguishers, flashlights, and battery-operated radios. Library employees should never have to spend time finding these items: they should always be close at hand. A librarian at each site should make sure that the fire extinguishers are fully functional and regularly inspected. New batteries should be available at each site, and stored in an obvious place rather than hidden.
Crow bars and shovels, dust masks, blankets, distilled water, dried foodstuffs, hard hats and body bags have also been stored in libraries for emergency purposes. In the end, the most useful supplies are those that are indicated by a library’s risk analysis. Librarians should ask themselves what tools they will need directly after any emergency indicated in the analysis, and provide their sites with the appropriate supplies.
Once the EPP is complete, librarians should study it carefully and revise it regularly. EPPs for public and academic libraries should be distributed to civic authorities, library trustees, and senior administrators outside the library system whose responsibilities affect library operations. Corporate (or Special) library plans should be distributed to all senior management outside the library and to any custodians or property managers who are involved in the library’s preventative maintenance.
Protecting lives during a disaster is the main purpose of the library’s disaster response program (DRP). A practical DRP for any library includes one brief document and a series of drills.
The document gives site-specific, point-form directions on what library employees should do in the event of any of the disasters mentioned in the risk analysis. These directions are clear, concise and lifesaving. Usually they do not cover any but the most crucial instructions for human safety, although some libraries use the DRP to promote first aid courses and specific safety measures, and to remind all library employees to review the EPP and DRP regularly.
The DRP document can be a single page suitable for posting on bulletin boards, or it can be folded into an small-format brochure for distribution to every library employee. It is advisable to make the DRP document as attractive as possible, so that employees understand its importance. An informal, hastily produced DRP will not have the same impact on employees as one that is properly laid-out with the library’s logo and site address(es).
Once the DRP document has reached all employees, drills are necessary to reinforce its directions. The library director or a senior library manager should ensure that earthquake and evacuation drills are regularly and efficiently executed. It must be emphasized to all participants that evacuation drills are not excuses for a cup of coffee down the street or a late-morning smoke in the parking lot.
Once the alarm has sounded or the order to evacuate has been made, employees should proceed to the previously-arranged safe gathering site without delay. Patrons in the library at the time of the drill should be asked to leave the building temporarily, with apologies for any inconvenience. When all staff members have assembled at the safe gathering site, the time required for the full evacuation should be noted.
A debriefing session should follow soon afterwards, during which evacuation participants should mention any impediments along the evacuation route or other concerns about the effectiveness of the drill.
The final phase of disaster planning involves the formulation and testing of measures to restore facilities and to reopen the library for service. A comprehensive service recovery program (SRP) gives library employees at all levels practical directions to deal with post-disaster circumstances.
An SRP begins with advice on matters that seem governed by common sense: how to recognize and declare a disaster. In a library, however, disaster recognition can be more complex than at other institutions. 
For example, if a large public or academic library loses its electronic catalogue, it is out of business, at least for purposes of reference and research. Loss of the catalogue is one of the more serious emergencies that can strike a library. There is little point, however, in calling 911 when a systems crash causes data loss. Some disaster planners would not consider such an event a true emergency. But librarians, realizing that their ability to offer service depends on the accessibility of the catalogue, regard data loss with alarm.
The SRP acknowledges all risks that librarians regard as threats to their operations, whether those risks be general (fire, flood, etc.) or library-specific (catalogue data loss). Some library SRPs contain analyses of contingencies with library-based examples.
For example, the least serious event that an SRP might deal with can be described as a “serious incident”, which could involve a minor loss of data, a roof leak that drenches several shelves of replaceable books, or a threat from a drunken patron. An “emergency” could be used in the event of a single casualty, a moderate fire, or substantial vandalism that compromises security at a site.
A “major emergency” covers serious damage at a single site, and possibly several casualties. A “disaster” is defined as an event that is beyond the powers of first responders to prevent or control, and that results in serious damage and prolonged service disruption at several sites and possibly a number of casualties.
Examples are large floods and moderate earthquakes. Disasters that cause horrendous, region-wide property damage and loss of life are identified as “catastrophes”. Fortunately, catastrophes are uncommon, although they remain indefinitely in the public memory. Hurricane Andrew, the Kobe earthquake, and the Chernobyl meltdown are outstanding examples.
Once librarians can identify with precision the magnitude of an event, they can make an informed decision as to the necessity of making a declaration. Sometimes the disaster declaration involves little more than the Director’s announcement to staff, a call to the Chair of the library trustees, and perhaps a press release. In other instances such as a system crash, an announcement to staff might be all that is necessary or appropriate. As soon as the Director makes some kind of declaration, however, the library’s emergency management program (EMP) commences.
Library EMPs cover safety of employees and patrons on site after an event, damage assessment procedures, the roles of the Security Officer and building maintenance managers, the securing of damaged sites, and safe travel measures to and from damaged sites. EMPs also contain sections on post-disaster communications such as press releases, emergency signage, and the use of couriers.
The purpose of the EMP is to stabilize a difficult situation and to assist the library staff in retaking control of operations at any site affected by an event. Once calm prevails and the library is secure, then the librarians can begin basic clean-up procedures.
As always, however, the library’s computer department requires special attention. The SRP should describe the library system’s minimal configuration: the list of hardware and software that must be available and functional for the computer department to offer its basic services.
Damage assessment in a computer is a specialized concern, and is often left to the computer vendor who holds the service contract. If the computer room has been destroyed, the SRP outlines the necessary steps for the activation of the library’s remote site.
While smaller libraries find remote sites beyond their budgets, they can often make arrangements with another institution for anything from back-up tape storage to the temporary use of the institution’s system.
In an age of shrinking budgets and rising costs, libraries are exploring the possibility (and, in some cases, reaping the benefits) of partnerships with external agencies. In fact, the development of its SRP gives the library an opportunity to form strategic partnerships with the broadest variety of agents: computer vendors, clean-up and restoration firms, building contractors, engineers, publishers, booksellers, and conservation specialists.
The idea behind every partnership is that the library will have its partners ready and able to provide services and replacements for anything from shelving to paperback fiction. Should a priceless manuscript be soaked in a flood, the SRP will contain the address and telephone number of the appropriate conservator who can repair the damage.
Sometimes libraries will include a written agreement from agents, who state that, in the event of a disaster, the library will receive the agents’ attention before any other institution.
Even libraries that employ full-time and highly specialized conservators will form partnerships with outside conservators, in case a disaster overburdens library staff. Since library clean-up is extremely labor-intensive, it is wise to have reliable support available.
Other SRP sections deal with insurance, restoration of facilities, and issues arising from disrupted work schedules, overtime, and reallocation of staff to library sites that need more assistance with clean-up. Getting a library back to normal can be costly and time-consuming, but with a well-organized SRP, recovery will not be such an arduous process.
Sadly, library history contains accounts of hundreds of disasters that have wiped out almost entire fields of knowledge. From the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in the Third and Fourth centuries A.D., to the incendiary bombing of the Bosnian National Library in 1992, the inventory of losses might make us think that the effort to save libraries and their contents is useless. But that effort, conducted with increasing sophistication by disaster planners and recovery specialists in the library community, has saved enormous amounts of treasure from oblivion. 
More optimistic versions of history will record not what has been lost, but what has been rescued from fire, floods, earthquakes, war, and human carelessness. With the planning methods that are available to us, the future for libraries is brighter than we might think.

A Sample Library
Disaster Response Plan

This sample DRP is similar to several in effect for libraries on the West Coast, from British Columbia to Southern California. Note that earthquake instructions are not as necessary in Florida or the Carolinas as instructions regarding hurricanes. Every DRP should address its appropriate regional risk profile, which is that series of risks that are most probable in a particular region. Local and site-specific risks should also be covered in a DRP.

(Library logo)
Paradise County Public Library
The Librarian’s Personal Disaster Response Plan

Flooding and Leaks
Bomb Threat
Toxic Spill
High Winds/ Severe Weather


•Small fires can be doused with fire extinguishers. If the blaze starts to spread, trigger the fire alarm.
•Main Library: Advise the Security Officer. Prepare to evacuate on command.
•Branches: Evacuate immediately.
•Walk, don’t run.
•Avoid flames, fumes and smoke. The closer you are to the floor, the lighter the smoke and fumes.
•Do not use the elevator.
•Advise patrons to leave. Do not remain behind if a patron refuses to leave.
•Once outside, go to your safe gathering site: (location).
•Upon arrival at your safe gathering site, the senior employee present will make sure that the fire department has been contacted.
•Branches: Once you are sure that the fire department has been contacted, call the Security officer at the Main Library.


Most floods and leaks are not life-threatening, but:
•Avoid wet wiring and electrical outlets. Advise patrons to stay clear of computer terminals.
•Do not walk through water.
•Try to identify the source of the water: roof, window, sprinkler, pipe, washroom, etc.
•If flooding is caused by faulty plumbing, try to turn off the water
main. Contact building maintenance without delay.
•Do not begin clean-up until after an inspection of wiring and electrical outlets.


•Main Library: Advise the Security Officer immediately. Prepare to evacuate on command.
•Branches: Evacuate immediately. Upon arrival at your safe gathering site, call the fire department and the Security Officer.


By telephone:
•Cooperate with the caller. Listen carefully.
•If time permits, ask the caller 1) the location of the bomb, 2) the
expected time of the explosion, 3) why the bomb has been planted.
•Try to remember the exact time of the call.
•Try to remember the caller’s voice: male/female, accent, intoxicated, familiar?
•Note any background noises during the call: traffic, construction, music, voices, etc.
•Immediately advise the senior staff member at your site.
•Main Library: senior staff member in the affected department should call the Security Officer immediately and prepare to evacuate on command.
•Branches: Senior staff member should briefly check work areas for unusual or out-of-place items. Do not touch any suspicious parcel, envelope, box or container. Then evacuate the branch. Take all personal belongings with you to the safe gathering site.
•As soon as evacuation is complete, call 911 and the Security Officer at the Main Library.
In writing:
•Handle the document as little as possible after you have read it.
•If it is attached to a wall or other surface, do not touch it or the
surrounding area.
•Advise the senior staff member at once.
•Main Library: Senior staff member of affected department should call the Security Officer to notify the police. Prepare to evacuate on command.
•Branches: Senior staff member should call 911 and evacuate the branch immediately. Upon arrival at your safe gathering site, call the Security Officer at the Main Library.


During the shaking:
•Protect your head. Take cover under a counter, table, or desk.
•Avoid shelving units, file cabinets, glass, loose masonry and utility wires.
•If indoors, stay indoors. If outside, stay out side.
•If in a moving vehicle, stop in a clear area away from falling debris. Do not leave the vehicle.
After the shaking:
•Apply first aid if necessary.
•Avoid elevators.
• Do not use candles, matches or other open flames. Do not smoke.
•Do not make telephone calls unless they are lifesaving.
•Turn on your radio or television for emergency bulletins or updates.
•Avoid entering damaged buildings.
•Expect power outages.
•Expect aftershocks.
•Sprinklers and alarms might be triggered.
•Be prepared to remain at your library site for up to three days.
After six hours:
•Call your pre-arranged, personal out-of-state contact number. Give your name, local time of your call, location and status.
•Branches: senior staff member should inspect the branch for damage. If you suspect that it is unsafe, evacuate to your safe gathering site. Do not attempt to move fallen shelving without assistance.


Most toxic spills near local library sites would occur on streets,
particularly major arteries.
•Avoid the spill as much as possible.
•Main Library: If you notice heavy fumes, call the Security Officer and prepare to evacuate.
•Branches: If you notice fumes or any toxic material seeping into the library, evacuate to the safe gathering site. Call 911 and the Security Officer at the Main Library.
•Do not use matches, candles or other open flames. Do not smoke.


•Expect power outages and telephone line disruptions.
•Avoid glass.
•Main Library: prepare to close the affected departments upon the
instructions of the Director or Security Officer.
•Branches: wait for instructions from the Director or Security Officer. If contact with the Main Library is lost, determine if it is safe to evacuate the branch.
•If in a vehicle, drive carefully. Slow down. Avoid fallen power lines and wires, trees and unsafe structures.


• Take first aid training. Keep your ticket up-to-date.
•Make sure that you know the locations of the nearest first aid kit,
flashlight and fire extinguisher.
•Familiarize yourself with the nearest safe exit(s) and safe gathering site.
•Participate in all drills.
•Keep a spare pair of shoes and eyeglasses at your workplace.
•Discuss safety measures with all members of your household. Make sure that everyone knows the out-of-state contact number.
• Review all safety procedures every three months.

Guy Robertson, M.L.S., is Joint Chair of the Library Technician Program at Langara College and Senior Planner at Proact DataStor Corp in Vancouver, B.C.

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