image of Anna Amalia Library Fire, 08-16-2004, Picture-Alliance/DPA

2004: Duchess Anna Amalia Library fire in Weimar, Germany
(Photo: Picture-Alliance/DPA)

Preparing for the Worst ...

Library disaster planning

Failing to prepare is preparing to fall. - John Wooden

This website is aimed at library professionals who are just beginning to think about emergency preparedness and disaster planning. This field is a burgeoning one, with a myriad of useful and interesting resources. The purpose of the site is to light a fire under those who would like to get started in developing their expertise in this area. As such, it is by no means an exhaustive how-to technical guide.

Most comprehensive surveys of the subject take a four-stage approach (for example, Harvey 1993, refers to preservation, response, reaction and recovery, while Kahn 2003, identifies the four stages of disaster control as prevention, planning, response and recovery). This site could be characterized as a reference for those at the pre-planning stage; it is primarily meant to build awareness and to provide links to quality resources for continuing professional development. (If you are looking here because you have an emergency, 'better to go to Preserving Treasures After the Disaster, an excellent Library of Congress preservation ready reference source.)

It can happen to you

A library is only a library if it houses and makes accessible print, microform, audiovisual collections and electronic information, and acts as a hub for the exchange of ideas. For a library to suffer damage to its buildings or furnishings is regrettable; for its information resources to be traumatized and destroyed can be catastrophic.

When we think of catastrophic events, large-scale natural disasters often spring to mind. Certainly, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis can strike, causing widespread damage in our communities, including to our libraries. Many of us will, thankfully, never experience a massively destructive act of God in our lifetime. Nevertheless, it doesn't take utter devastation to seriously and perhaps irrevocably wound the heart of a library. A freak minor storm, an over-flowing drainage system, arson by a single individual or even a simple burst pipe or broken sprinkler can wreak havoc on our precious resources.

It has happened to them

Montreal library fire 1849

<- Montreal Parliamentary Library fire, 1849 (All but 200 of 12,000 volumes destroyed)
(Library of Parliament 2008)

A cursory internet search reveals plenty of discussion of institutions both large and small, revered and beloved, and past and present that have proven vulnerable to fire and water damage. The ancient library at Alexandria fell victim to flames during the time of Julius Caesar (see Chesser 2007); also scorched - more recently, in the late 1980s - were the Academy of Sciences Library in the former Soviet Union (Leningrad Library Fire, 1988) and the Los Angeles Public Library (Gonzalez 2005), with the two institutions losing over 400,000 books respectively. Even within recent months, we can find accounts of libraries that have had resources damaged by serious accidents. The little Edwardsville Public Library in Illinois had a flood damaging many books in October 2006 (Niccum 2006) in September 2007, the esteemed National Library of Scotland was also flooded, with hundreds of items damaged (Cornwell 2007); in another recent example, in January 2008, Renne Library at Montana State University experienced significant water damage to many rare and valuable books when a frozen pipe burst (Person 2008). The Illinois and Montana institutions had previously been afflicted by flooding incidents, and the Scottish library, ironically, fell victim to a damaged sprinkler system installed to prevent fires ten years ago. Clearly, in each case, cognizance and awareness of risk did not immunize either library from unexpected accidents.

Contingencies are crucial

In referring to library professionals and their need to plan for and effectively respond to catastrophe, Maria Gonzalez, a library preservation consultant and Ph.D. candidate in the University of Texas School of Information writes, ... all of us can count on having at least one disaster in our careers (Gonzalez, p.1). What we can't be assured of is knowing when we will be tagged; That disaster could easily sneak up on you when you least expect it and bite you on the behind (Alire 2000, p.3).

Much of the focus in disaster planning is directed at ensuring people are safe, but what happens after we've successfully evacuated our personnel and patrons from the building? What comes next will depend on how extensive and forward-looking the overall disaster control plan is.

Telephone tree, UBC Library disaster plan