February 2019 | Volume XXXVII. Issue 1 »

Disaster Preparedness and Recovery in Libraries: Bracing for the Worst, Helping the Community Heal

January 28, 2019
Eric A. Edwards, Illinois State Library

Librarians of all types have come to learn that the unexpected is part of the job. But what if “the unexpected” takes the form not of a challenging reference question or a query for a hard-to-find book, but a fire extinguisher that explodes, a tornado or hurricane that devastates nearby communities (if not the library itself), or a fire that causes enough damage to require a long-term recovery project? These are all disasters to which libraries are vulnerable. While libraries might seem a haven of sorts from the chaos of the real world, they are hardly immune to catastrophes. Even though the initial aftermath of a disaster may seem overwhelming, libraries can mitigate the long-term effects through planning for the possibility of a catastrophe and seeking community assistance on the path to recovery. And, in some cases, libraries can help communities themselves heal.


Some library disasters might seem predictable and almost inevitable, depending on the library’s location and the condition of the building. But what about those freak accidents for which there is almost never a contingency plan? Such was the case forResurrection University’s library, in which a fire extinguisher exploded through a series of mishaps, starting with a student leaning back in a chair against the fire extinguisher, and ending with the extinguisher falling to the floor and going off suddenly. In the instance of Kansas State University’s Hale Library, the fire resulted from roofing work that, ironically, had been undertaken to protect against water leaks from storms and ice melts. More information about this incident is available on the library’s blog at http://blogs.k-state.edu/hale/. In the case of the Litchfield Public Library, a toilet overflowed and flooded the children’s section, leaving water that was four inches deep.

While libraries located in areas vulnerable to natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, may have come to expect them, the timing, location, and extent of the damage can be hard to predict. The tornado that struck the Peoria area in November of 2013 was a complete surprise. Fortunately, neither theWashington District Library, nor the Fondulac District Library ,experienced much more than minor damage, and, in the case of the Fondulac District Library, this was especially fortuitous, as the new library building had opened just two weeks earlier.

 Probably the most effective way for a library to prepare is to create a disaster plan. While this will not cover all contingencies, it will at least give staff and visitors an idea of how to keep themselves safe, while at the same time protecting library materials to the greatest extent possible. The plan should specify which sections of the building are the most secure for sheltering. It should prioritize those parts of the collection the library should try to salvage, depending on the type of damage. Give staff members a copy to have at home, in case they need to come to the assistance of co-workers who are on-site. Also, give out “pocket-sized plans,” which staff can consult easily, especially during evacuation. Make sure to include phone numbers to call in the event of an emergency. Each library should ensure that the plan addresses any vulnerabilities specific to its location.

Staff should consistently practice for emergency scenarios so that, when the worst happens, their reactions are second nature. Rely on a representative or trainer within the organization, if one is available. In the case of a somewhat foreseeable disaster, such as a hurricane, remove any furniture or other items from particularly vulnerable areas. The San Juan Community Library in PuertoRico did this for a breezeway, to prepare for the possibility of a hurricane. Make certain any precautions, such as sprinkler systems, are up-to-date and will not cause additional damage due to malfunctioning.


Due to the unpredictability of these events, the amount of damage and the effort that the library will have to devote to the recovery process can vary. With an incident even as seemingly minor as a fire extinguisher’s exploding, the damage can be extensive. Literally every inch of the library and adjacent areas was coated with dust, and it filled the air for a week. While there was no permanent damage, the cleanup process was continuous.

Although the first thought that might come to mind, when thinking of libraries and disasters, is damage to books and other materials, remember that library staff and users are also vulnerable, even if they are not in the immediate vicinity of the disaster. The first step, of course, is to evacuate users and staff and, if possible, account for everyone who was in the building at the time of the incident. The next step is making certain that no one enters or reenters the area of the disaster until emergency responders have arrived. Make sure first-aid kits and other emergency supplies are readily accessible. In the case of any airborne hazards, such as the dust from the fire extinguisher, being close to a hospital emergency room, with its supply of face masks and air filters, was a stroke of good fortune.

The short-term impact can go beyond physical damage, however.In the case of a hurricane, for instance, cell phone services might go down, making it extremely difficult for library staff to communicate directly with first responders and neighbors.If entire communities or regions lose internet access, it will not be possible to convey news and updates on the recovery process via email or websites. Even if a library escapes the disaster unscathed, power outages and other problems might delay reopening.


As overwhelming as the initial damage from the disaster might seem, it is vital for library staff not to panic, as even measures taken after-the-fact can mitigate, at least to a degree, the long-term impact. Start the cleanup process as soon as it is safe, to prevent secondary damage from water, mold, and other hazards. Determine which materials are a total loss, and dispose of those. If necessary, move salvageable items to a secure location nearby, such as a departmental or branch library.

If the library has a large number of staff members who are volunteers, they can be a valuable resource should regular staff be unavailable or overwhelmed. This can be especially true of a nonprofit, community-based library, such as the San JuanCommunity Library. After Hurricane Maria struck in 2017, volunteers helped remove books that were blocking an entrance, and then, once they had regained access to the building, pushed out standing water. A nearby church provided additional helpers.The Carbondale Public Library was in a similar situation when vandals almost destroyed its Japanese garden. The garden had already been maintained by the Evergreen Garden Club, so volunteers were readily available to help with replanting and other recovery activities. For public libraries, bringing in city services can help, as the Fondulac District Library did with a street sweeper that cleaned up the parking lot following the tornado.

The building recovery is paramount, but so is restoring library services as much as possible in the interim. The San Juan Community Library already had a virtual library open 24/7, so this was able to take over many services normally provided by the physical location. Access can still be a challenge, however, if residents lose internet connections or cell phone coverage. Hale Library has opened a service desk in the Kansas State University student union that offers information and reference services, along with access to reserves and interlibrary loan. To restore other services, such as study spaces, Hale Library has worked with the university’s information-technology department and opened study centers around campus while providing an interactive map of campus to show students where the centers are located.


Even if the library survives the disaster relatively unscathed, it can still play a crucial role in helping the community, including people who may not use the library, recover.In the case of the Washington District Library, it worked with the Morton Library and other volunteers to digitize photos discovered in the aftermath of the tornado, then posting the images to the library’s website so that people could claim the photos. The Fondulac District Library undertook a similar endeavor, offering digital restoration of photos and other damaged materials, including providing the images free of charge on a flash drive. The flash drives came from donors or volunteers.

Simply being open, and serving as a place with reliable internet access and a climate-controlled environment, can help members of the community who are trying to get back onto their feet. If possible, link to emergency recovery information, including national organizations’ pages, on the library’s computers. Misinformation can be rife in the aftermath of a community-wide disaster. Provide space for people to meet, and, if the library has a collection of games or toys, make these readily available so that community members have an opportunity to relax. If the recovery process requires more than what the library and the community can provide, contacting national organizations, including theFederal Emergency Management Agency, the Department ofHomeland Security, and the Red Cross, can bring in additional resources. Ideally, the financial impact of a disaster is mitigated if the library has adequate insurance in place (please see the sidebar“Q&A with the Libraries of Illinois Risk Agency” on p.43).Holding a fund-raiser, such as a GoFundMe campaign, can draw additional financial support.

Regardless of the type of damage, the library should keep its patrons up-to-date on the recovery efforts, including a timetable of when the library itself expects to reopen, and which services will be available in the meantime. A website that the library regularly updates is an option if most patrons and other stakeholders still have internet access. This is the approach that Hale Library has taken during the ongoing recovery from the fire, with its “Hale Library: The Next Chapter” blog.


Even if a disaster is the result of a freak accident or a once-in-a-lifetime storm, library staff should never take it for granted that a similar disaster (including on a smaller or larger scale) will not happen again. In the case of fire extinguishers, for instance, make certain they are open and not placed near seating areas, and have security cameras facing those areas. Ensure that supplies, such as face masks, gloves, and wet-wipes, are close at hand. As far as preventing damage to library materials, a large room air purifier that can be activated after the incident is the best investment.If space permits, move books, computers, and other vulnerable items to areas of the library that are less likely to receive damage.

Regardless of the type of damage or the length of the recovery process, it can be tempting for libraries to focus on their weaknesses and second-guess themselves over the precautions they failed to take. But emphasizing strengths can be just as important, not just for repairing the library, but also for helping the broader community heal. Again, each situation is different, and the library should tailor its preparations and responses to the needs and resources of the community it serves. This may force the library to stretch the boundaries of its mission and seek resources beyond those normally available, but, in the end, the library and the community can strengthen their bonds and become better prepared for any future disasters.


The author would like to thank the following individuals forsharing their knowledge and experience: Esther Curry, C. E.Brehm Memorial Public Library District; Diana BrawleySussman, Carbondale Public Library; Sergeant Matt Breihan,Edwardsville Police Department; Genna Buhr, Fondulac DistrictLibrary; Lori Goetsch, Kansas State University; Sara Zumwalt,Litchfield Public Library District; Jacqueline Leskovec, NationalNetwork of Libraries of Medicine–Greater Midwest Region;Ramune Kubilius, Northwestern University; Ryan Johnson,O’Fallon Public Library; Randall Yelverton, Peoria Public Library(formerly of the Washington District Library); Liesl Cottrell,Resurrection University; and Connie Estades, San Juan (PuertoRico) Community Library.


American Red Cross


Department of Homeland Security


Disaster Information Management Research Center


Federal Emergency Management Agency


National Preparedness Month


Finding Common Ground: Collaborative Training for the Cultural Heritage and Emergency Response Communitiesdeveloped by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners



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