Most emergencies affecting collections are relatively minor—for example, accidental water damage to a few hundred books. Thus the most effective steps a library can take during the planning phase have to do with the recovery of water- or fire-damaged books and other library materials. The following identification tasks are essential parts of the planning phase and should be assigned to task force members. It is recommended that you examine disaster plans from other libraries in your region by gathering several examples from colleagues.

Essential parts of a disaster response plan

• Task force members
• Disaster action team members
• Disaster telephone tree
• Facilities and risks audit
• Floor plans
• Salvage priorities
• Drying and packing areas
• Emergency supplies
• Other supplies on site
• Supplies and equipment off site
• Suppliers
• Checklist of immediate steps in a major emergency

Facilities and risks audit

A vital part of any disaster response plan is the initial and continuing survey of the library facility and service areas. The facilities audit or survey is necessary because it provides an overall view of conditions governing the safety and long-term preservation of the collection as viewed with a fresh and more critical eye. In general, the topics that must be considered during the survey include insurance coverage, responsibility for various aspects of the building structure, fire and water alarms, electrical wiring, and evidence of past problems. Often, action taken as a result of this survey may prevent a disaster from occurring.

Obvious dangers
There are obvious dangers to collections, such as fires and flood, but the sources of these problems are often not clearly enough recognized. For example, in the United States, 72% of all library and archive fires are the result of arson, with another 25% the result of construction. Sometimes, fire and flood are associated, when for example, fire-fighters' hoses knock books from shelves and soak materials, or when leaking ceilings cause fires from electrical short circuits. The library director and emergency coordinator should always be notified at least 48 hours before any plumbing or construction work is undertaken so that collections can be moved or covered with plastic as a precaution.

Sensible precautions
Materials that are stored on a basement floor in cardboard cartons can easily be housed in a more appropriate fashion and shelved high enough to be safe from unexpected floods. Similarly, records stored on conventional shelving in a basement should not be closer to the floor than 15 centimeters (six inches). Materials stored beneath water pipes or drains should be moved away from them, and materials in an area that has a history of flooding should be relocated. Basement areas can be especially vulnerable because of drain back-ups, water draining from pipe bursts in other parts of the building structure, and water from external sources, such as a burst water main in the street. In addition, unless there is adequate air circulation, mold can form and cause rapid deterioration and, as a less traveled area, rodents and insects are more likely to be active. Some consideration should be given to the installation of floor-mounted water alarms, which are of only moderate cost. Wet/damp floors and other forms of moisture attract insects, which must have moisture to survive.

Other floors
The chief culprit in water damage to library materials is water coming from above via leaking pipes, overflowing bathrooms or restrooms, roof breaks, and broken skylights. If materials are stored in areas that are in danger, it is usually a simple matter to move them to a place less vulnerable, away from likely sources of leakage. Past history is generally a good indicator of possible future damage, and recent ceiling leakage history can usually be determined by an examination of the walls and ceiling. Staining or streaking often indicates that water has percolated through the ceiling at some time, and the likelihood of a repeat is quite high. Sometimes, repairs or restoration to the building can cause leaks to occur when, for example, temporary protective plastic sheeting placed in position by builders is blown away during an unanticipated rainstorm. Regular roof and gutter maintenance are important, as instances have regularly occurred where water has seeped through walls because of a clogged gutter or downspout.

Fire alarms and prevention
Obviously, fire in a library or archives can be disastrous, so an alarm system that will notify personnel that a fire has started must be in place. Unfortunately, many libraries are not adequately protected against fire, although prudent protection can be relatively inexpensive. Ideally, the alarm should be wired to a security center, such as a fire department, usually via a basic telephone hook-up. If possible, an automatic sprinkler system should protect the collection and surrounding structure, but in any case extinguishers should be readily available. Common sense auditing of a facility includes checking the condition of electrical wiring, reducing flammable rubbish accumulation, ensuring that other combustibles such as parafin or petrol are away from the books. A fire in a building structure housing library materials can cause substantial collateral damage even if the materials are not directly burned via smoke or wet from water damage. Valuable information can be gained by asking a local fire department representative to help to audit the facility and provide some recommendations to reduce the fire risk. This is also an opportunity to introduce the fire department to the special nature of the library for their files. Even the best-protected facilities can be devastated by fire however, and it is imperative that essential back-up data files—such as the library's bibliographic records—be stored at a different site.

Checklists of hazards and safety features

Floor plans

View a sample floor plan

Salvage priorities

Each department, unit, or library should identify the parts of its library collections that should be protected or salvaged first in an emergency. List these library materials, records, and collections in order of priority. It is best to list the collection priorities in detail. Establishing priorities within collections is equally important (for example, the call numbers of specific items within a collection). Along with this priority list, attach a floor plan to the disaster response plan to indicate the locations of fire extinguishers and alarms.

Salvage priorities questionnaire

Salvage priority checklist

Notification checklist

Drying and packing areas

Identify spaces in the library where wet materials can be taken for drying or packing. The space must be clean, dry, and secure—with good air circulation and, if possible, some temperature and humidity control. Air drying can take from a day to a week, so the area should be available for that long. In choosing areas for air drying, consider these factors:

  • Accessibility (for example, the area should be accessible to wheeled book trucks).
  • A clear path to a loading area, in case the damaged collection needs to be moved off site.
  • Proximity to the affected part of the collection.
  • Good air circulation, with potential for controlling the environment (openable windows, separate air conditioning units, electrical outlets for fans).
  • Availability of flat, open surfaces (reading rooms may be good, but consider the impact on readers if they must be kept out for several days).
  • Security (library materials must not be vulnerable to theft or mutilation).
  • In a large library or archive more than one drying area should be identified. The location of the drying area (or areas) should be clearly indicated in the disaster response plan.

Emergency supplies

Assemble an emergency unit supply box for each unit or floor of the library using a portable container of about 0.35 cubic meters, such as a trunk or footlocker with handles. The boxed supplies should be stored in a secure but accessible place.

Supply checklist

Other supplies on site

In addition to the emergency unit supply box, each unit should identify and ensure access to the following emergency supplies and equipment. Most of these items are probably already in the building for use in normal cleaning, but janitorial staff often secure them. So it is important to establish their location and maintain access to them.

1. Portable electric fans. To create air circulation, speed drying, and inhibit the formation of mold.

2. Wet-dry vacuum. To vacuum up small amounts of standing water quickly.

3. Mops and buckets. To keep work areas clean and dry.

4. Floor squeegee. To control the flow of water on the floor.

5. Garbage containers. To deposit and remove wet paper towels and other discarded materials.

Supplies and equipment off site

It is useful (but not absolutely essential) to have the following supplies and equipment on hand or at least to be aware of their availability. Consider a cooperative approach to purchasing and storing these supplies, sharing their use among many libraries.

Off-site supply checklist

Supplier Chart

Conducting a response and recovery workshop

To train the disaster action team in the recovery and salvage aspects of emergency response, a library can conduct a workshop on site. The first section of this workshop should deal with the practical matters of preparation and the aspects of disaster planning for a speedy and well-organized response, including assembling general and emergency unit supplies. The second section should focus on a recovery exercise, involving participants in a simulated water emergency affecting books, graphics, and manuscripts. After the simulation participants will be less intimidated by the trauma of handling wet library and archive materials.


Space, equipment, and supply needs

Three cases for discussion

Case 1.

Dawson College: Inundation by rainwater

Case 2.

Cardoman University: Water pipe leak

Case 3.

Metropolitan Public Library: Basement flood from a water main break