Library and Archive Disaster Planning and my Firsthand Experiences with It


A year ago today (September 10, 2011), I saw something happen I never dreamed would. My workplace fell victim to arson. A fire ravaged the access services and copy center areas of Ellis Library. Water damage was more extensive. It extended into the reference and government documents stacks and seeped through the floor to drench The State Historical Society of Missouri below us.

I was supposed to teach a workshop that day, but instead I was glued to the computer with my fellow graduate assistants waiting for each update on the situation. The first day we were allowed back, I went to work at Ellis dressed like I was planning to work around the farm. I helped clean soot covered objects while watching the full-time staff interweave damp books with paper to dry them out in fan-filled rooms. Then I manned the reference desk and fielded questions about the fire, careful not to say anymore than had already been publicly released. At times we had to walk on water-soaked carpet and popped-up tiles. Over the next few days, we had to modify the layout of the affected floor while patrons returned (after being closed for three days). Over the next few months, we had to redirect patrons to a new circulation area, deal with closed reference and government document stacks, and lack of a computer lab that once existed in the water damaged area. Slowly, things were rebuilt and the finishing touches were added in the weeks leading up to graduation (May, 2012).

Ellis Library Access Services After the Fire

A fire ravaged Access Services desk after the Ellis Library the fire

Meanwhile, at State Historical it was equally daunting. I was a volunteer and I helped with the damage control there during the week. Most of the dampness was under control, but whole offices and storage areas had to be moved so they could be repaired. The walls had to be stripped to the studs and rebuilt and the carpet would need replacing. I spent several hours moving box-filled book trucks from one end of the building to another as rapidly as possible. Not only did repairs need to begin that week, but the material-mostly merchandise, office and archival supplies–and furniture needed to be moved before it could expose the historical documents to mold.

In all, nearly a million dollars in damage had been done. Whole areas had to be rebuilt in both parts of the building. A few dozen reserve books at Ellis were soaked through. Computers and related equipment needed replaced. State Historical lost over $10,000 of microfilmed newspapers. Luckily, the original films were stored off-site and copies could be made to replace those lost. Two manuscript collections were also damaged.

For more photos than this single one I took with my cell phone, here are some links.  Due to copyright restrictions, I cannot import them.  The Columbia Missourian has photos that illustrate the damage done to the computer lab (scroll about halfway down), the outside of the building with a “Workshops Rescheduled” sign, and the copy services area.  The Columbia Tribune features a photo of the damage in the main office of State Historical.  Each photo link also features more news about the fire.

Now for the even sadder part. Not even two months before I turned in a report on disaster planning. I spent the summer researching library and archive disasters and disaster planning, including sending out surveys to complete the study. I figured it was a good topic to be prepared for, but I figured I would most likely never see a library or archive disaster first-hand. Not only was I wrong, but it affected two distinct places I worked at. To top it off, I am early enough in my career, I could still have to face a third library or archive disaster.  I hope that doesn’t happen.

Granted the above case was due to arson, but here are some tips for disaster planing and prevention. As I located in my research, 80% of all libraries, archives, and museums do not have a disaster plan.*

Tips for Library and Archive Disaster Planning:

  1. Create a disaster plan:
    1. Prioritize the collection (make sure the most unique or important items are among the first to be rescued and treated).
    2. Identify potential problems and remedy the problem.
    3. Create a plan that addresses all disaster types, including natural and man-made types (ex. tornado, flood, fire, water leak, pests, etc.).
    4. Include employees’, conservators’, local emergency personnel’s, and disaster response crews’ contact information.
    5. Have employees practice and refine the plan
  2. Create a disaster kit:
    1. Include food, water, the disaster plan, plastic sheets, first aid supplies, flashlights, and supplies as necessary.
  3. Store copies of important books and records in fire vaults and/or keep copies off-site.
  4. Keep the microfilm silvers off-site (these are the master copies) and keep a second regular film or silver copy in a third location. (Remember even in today’s tech heavy world, microfilm is still be best method for preserving documents.  In proper storage conditions, it can last 500 years.)
  5. Back-up electronic files to multiple locations, including at least one off-site.
  6. Repair and inspect faulty equipment.
  7. Never store material near or under waterlines, near windows, on floors, or in basements.

Oh, and don’t forget to insure the collection(s)!

A good book for more information would be Library and Disaster Planning and Recovery Handbook edited by Camila Alire (Neil-Schuman, 2000). One can also check out ALA’s page on Library Disasters, the Library of Congress’s Emergency Preparedness page, and the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s Disaster Resources page or section three of their digital leaflets page.

Do you find these tips helpful?  Does this post inspire you to plan and be prepared for a disaster?

* Clareson, Tom and Jane S. Long. “Libraries in the Eye of the Storm: Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina.” American Libraries 37.7 (2006): 38-41


One thought on “Library and Archive Disaster Planning and my Firsthand Experiences with It

  1. Pingback: And the Basement Floods | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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