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Tuesday, 30 October 2007 07:32

Library Disaster Recovery Planning

Written by  Jean Uidenich
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In the aftermath of the April 29, 1986 and September 3, 1986 Los Angeles Public Library fires, many library owners, operators, and librarians were asking themselves what they would do if disaster struck their facilities leaving them with thousands of water-soaked books, documents, and files.  This same question was asked after fires at the Klein and Temple University Law Libraries in 1972, the National Military Personnel Records Center in 1973, the University of Toronto Fleming Library in 1977, the San Diego Aerospace Museum and Library in 1978, and the Dalhousie University Law Library in 1985.

Fires aren't the only catastrophes that can strike library collections. The Florence, Italy flood in 1966, the Corning Museum and the New York and Pennsylvania Library floods in1972; the Cornell University Library and Northwestern University Library floods in 1976; the broken water pipe at Stanford University in 1981; the damaged fire hydrant in 1986at Pepper dine University Library, and the earthquake that occurred near UC Santa Barbara in 1978 are all examples of catastrophic events that have seriously affected library operations.
Many lessons were learned from these disasters, the most important being the need for libraries to have written disaster plans that also address recovery measures. The success of any salvage operation was discovered to be directly dependent upon preparations made in advance of the incident.

The disasters experienced by libraries and museums have led to the development of successful salvage and recoveryprocedures and techniques. At first it was thought that heating books in an oven would evaporate the water away butthis process was quickly abandoned. Today, the most successful results have been achieved by air drying, vacuum freeze drying, and vacuum thermal drying. However, there is no single best method. Each situation must be evaluated individually depending upon the degree of damage and type of materials involved.
The combination of good preplanning and proper salvage techniques will give libraries the opportunity to recover. The following two cases are studies of the extremes.

On November 12, 1971, the Irvington branch library in Fremont, California experienced a fire. Frantic efforts were made to salvage wet collections but there were numerous delays in obtaining the authorizations to act. The books were finally judged beyond recovery and bulldozed into a sanitary landfill.

On the other hand, a book, The Merchant's Almanac, rested for100 years in deep water in the wreck of the Bertrand at the bottom of the Missouri River until it was eventually recovered by the Smithsonian Institute and triumphantly restored by vacuum drying. These two incidents emphasize the need for expert assistance which can contribute significantly to recovery success. Most libraries do not have an experienced book salvage expert on staff. Therefore, the preplan should contain a list of names and telephone numbers of salvage experts to call upon in an emergency.

A successful recovery plan should address five action phases:



After a building is declared safe to enter, the first step in the recovery process is to assess the type and degree of damage.

It is crucial at this point that librarians or bibliographers familiar with the library collections assisting the damage assessment. It is also important to be aware of insurance company requirements.

For example, the insurance carrier may want to appraise the damages and direct the salvage process.

The preplan should establish priorities for materials to be saved first and those to be discarded, taking into consideration the intellectual value versus the artifactual value. Photographs and notes should be taken during the damage appraisal phase.

Vital records and very valuable books and materials should be located. Then, priorities and plans for salvaging can be made.

If priorities cannot be established during the initial appraisal process, it is best to take the conservative route, earmark the questionable materials for salvage, and make the final decision when time is not critical.


Mold growth can be expected to begin within 48 hours unless the environment of the flooded area is stabilized.
Consequently, every effort should be made to reduce high temperatures and to provide ventilation. Generally the following considerations should be kept in mind:

  • Damp books in temperatures above 70 degrees F. and humidity above 70% will be subject to mold growth.
  • Undisturbed archival files will not be so quickly attacked by mold.
  • Very wet books, or those still submerged in water, will not develop mold.

If temperature and humidity are a problem, then steps must betaken to control mold growth. During warm weather, temperatures can be reduced by turning on air conditioning. In cool weather, heat inside the affected areas should be turned off.

If mold growth becomes a problem, then is may be necessary to utilize fungicidal fogging. However, this should never be undertaken without proper professional supervision. These measures must comply with federal, state and local hazardous substance regulations.


Determining mitigation strategies is often most difficult. After establishing priorities and deciding what books are to be salvaged, it is necessary to decide to what degree the materials should be salvaged and to select what methods will be used. It is helpful to formulate a general plan regarding salvage. If time is short, it may be necessary to transport all materials to freezers in order to buy time for more rational decision making at a later date.

Experience has shown that freezing water-damaged materials at temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit, preferably-20degrees F., will stabilize mold growth and facilitate salvage efforts. Although freezing does not remedy mold damages, it does not harm the materials further. Evidence has shown that wet material can be held in the frozen state for a long as six years without further deterioration.

The three most common salvage methods today are air drying, vacuum thermal drying and vacuum freeze drying. The determination of which method to use depends upon many factors, including the amount of damaged material, the extent of damage, the type of material, the type of paper and print, bound versus unbound, and other variables. This is where the expertise of a professional book conservator is important.


Implementation can require the most planning. A preplan is of enormous benefit during this phase. Quick action must betaken after the mitigation strategy phase. This is especially important to the success of the total salvage operation. Great volumes of water-damaged materials may have to be removed in as little time as possible.

It is essential that people be selected and designated in advance to supervise salvage operations. These people should be given the authority to make on-the-spot decisions without obtaining the approval of management who may not be available or have the expertise to make a technical decision.

Depending upon the extent of the loss, large numbers of people may have to be assembled to begin book removal.  Assistance can come in the form of community volunteers, as was the case for the Los Angeles Public Library which used1,500 volunteers, or local temporary help can be hired. In either case, an extraordinary amount of organization is required.


Once the salvage processes have begun it is necessary to continuously evaluate the results. If the materials have been frozen, there is more time to make clear decisions regarding the salvage methods (i.e., vacuum thermal versus vacuum freeze drying). Sample numbers of books can be dried and carefully examined to determine which method works best.  The salvage and restoration operation may be completed in several days depending upon the amount of damaged material or it may endure for months. Stanford University's Meyer Library flood in 1978 wetted approximately 52,000 books.  Salvaging and restoration took over six months but only 34books were finally discarded.

The tremendous task of reshelving will have to be considered.  Inventory may have to be taken while the books are still frozen in order to establish the order of salvage.

Preplanning will plan a significant role in the degree of success that is achieved. The job won't be easy but preplanning will help to put order and direction into a situation that could otherwise develop into a major disaster.

This article was written by Jean Uidenich of M&M Protection Consultants in Los Angeles, California.

This article adapted from Vol. 2 No. 3, p. 22.

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