Boston Public Library © Jan David Hanrath

IN 1966 THE ARNO RIVER in Florence, Italy, flooded its banks. Millions of valuable artworks, manuscripts, and rare books were damaged and destroyed when water inundated the city’s museums, historic churches, and libraries. The flood was a wakeup call for cultural institutions worldwide and it formed the impetus for a more organized disaster response for cultural property. Changes, however, didn’t occur overnight. In the United States, for example, during a 1976 Library of Congress planning conference, one of the speakers, Stephen Salmon (at the time executive director for Systemwide Library Planning at the University of California, Berkeley) noted that almost all American libraries were glaringly unprepared for disasters. Salmon called for a more proactive approach (Silverman 2006).

In the intervening four decades, successive generations of professionals have improved the practices of preservation, conservation, and restoration. In addition, an increasing number of cultural institutions have created disaster-response plans.

Since the dawn of the Information Age, the nature of public libraries has changed significantly. Libraries have capitalized upon new technologies and forged partnerships with both community groups and government agencies to provide a wide variety of services, including access to computers and the Internet. A 2010 report stated that in one single year, 77 million Americans age 14 or older (32 percent) took advantage of Internet access in a public library. If it weren’t for libraries, according to the authors, “millions of Americans would not have reliable Internet access in a digital age when a connection is often needed to complete school assignments, apply for jobs, or secure government services” (Becker et al. 2011).

This role as a hub of electronic information becomes even more essential in times of emergencies. In the aftermath of disaster, many people rely on public library Internet access to request aid, try to find missing family and friends, file Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance claims, and begin rebuilding their lives. Libraries also serve as a safe haven from the chaotic storm of displaced lives.

A library's role as a hub of electronic information becomes even more essential in times of emergencies

For all these reasons, it is critical that library services be rapidly restored after disasters. To ensure an effective response and to minimize interruptions, libraries need to prepare for disasters.

Today, just over half of all libraries in the United States have a disaster-response plan in place.1 Many of these plans are unfinished due to understaffing, internal complacency, and bureaucracy. Subsequently, when a disaster strikes, incomplete or untested plans are often put into practice and only amended or revised in the aftermath, when the damage has been done.

While the situation in the United States has definitely improved since Salmon’s alarming statement, there is still plenty of room for improvement. Many libraries struggle to design plans and keep them current. In order to jumpstart the disaster-planning process at libraries that do not have a plan or have an inefficient plan in place, Miriam Kahn has written a number of comprehensive guidelines that can be used as a tool.2

The most common library disasters involve flooding—caused by broken water pipes, hurricanes, cyclones, tropical storms, torrential rains, and flooding of nearby bodies of water. As such, Kahn’s guidelines—also useful for other cultural institutions—focus especially on water damage.

Disaster planning

Disasters come in all sizes. Sometimes disasters affect a small part of a building, sometimes the entire building, and in the most extreme and tragic times, the entire community. To respond quickly and efficiently, libraries must plan and prepare for whatever comes their way. Every size of disaster involves the same basic procedures, so it makes sense to start with a small-scale or localized plan and build on that. A well-thought-out disaster-response plan will decrease the amount of time it takes to implement disaster-recovery procedures, and it should decrease the loss of materials and contents while increasing the recovery rate.

So, where to start? First, libraries have to select a disaster-response team and a team leader. This leader can’t be the director; he or she has other responsibilities and will be busy communicating with administration, insurance companies, and disaster-response companies. Once the disaster-response team is formed, it is useful to create identification cards and obtain matching vests or T-shirts for team members. After all, in the chaos that follows disaster, it is critical that the public and outside first responders can identify members of a library’s disaster-response team.

The next step is conducting a building survey. The purpose of such survey is to look for evidence of past disasters--for example old water damage, which should be easy to find, as well as areas of the library that are potential disasters. As part of the building survey, team members should draw a basic floor plan that locates emergency exits, fire alarms, fire escapes, and fire extinguishers, and identifies rooms according to their purpose or contents. Ultimately, this floor plan would show where the first- and second-priority collections (further discussed below) are located for removal and recovery. Library staff may not be able to enter the building and might have to show firefighters or a disaster-response company where the most vulnerable and valuable items are that require removal and treatment. Such a comprehensive and detailed floor plan is especially important.

Next, library departments must prioritize their collections based on their mission and their services to patrons and clients. This phase of the planning process is often the most difficult one. The process looks at the library’s collection—besides paper-based collections this also includes non-print and non-paper collections (such as photographs and audiovisual materials); computers and their associated magnetic media; and office, administrative, and institutional records—for unique and irreplaceable items in an attempt to determine in what order items should be rescued and recovered should they be damaged in a disaster. Once such items are identified, it is also essential to examine how each department’s collection fits into the mission of the institution as a whole. In the case of a large-scale disaster, where the entire building is affected, the disaster-response team will have to know which departments are more crucial to the institution’s mission in order to rescue what they can.3 Based on all this, a prioritization checklist—reviewed at least once a year—can be formulated.

It is important to recognize that the increased dependence of libraries on computers, data, databases, telecommunications, websites, e-mail, data-sharing services, and other technological advances requires heightened diligence in disaster response and contingency plans. A specific information systems disaster-response plan should both stand alone and be integrated into the general disaster-response plan for the library. In addition, the liaison of the information systems disaster-response team should be included in all phases of disaster planning.

The next step in the planning phase is designating jobs to specific disaster-response team members. These jobs include:

1) Creating a contact list with local and regional 4 suppliers of packing and shipping products and services (including a freezer- or cold-storage facility); preservation consultants and conservation facilities 5 that specialize in disaster response; disaster- response/drying companies; security companies; contractors; and office equipment rental companies.

2) Designating a place where the disaster-response team can gather if the building is damaged or inaccessible. Select one location on, and one location off library grounds.

3) Identifying temporary office space (for administration and non-public services) and empty storefronts and shopping centers in a nearby community. The latter are perfect locations for temporary library and archive sites, and off-site storage.

4) Reviewing the insurance policy. This should be done at least once a year. The team member tasked with this job should also make sure to ask the institution’s insurance company if there are procedures that must be followed for a successful claim.

5) Updating the building survey and prioritizing recovery decisions. Like the insurance policy, the survey should also be reviewed at least once a year.

6) Putting together or purchasing a basic disaster-response kit.

7) Finding out who is responsible for stocking and maintaining the first-aid kits, which should be checked regularly.

8) Creating a communication plan. Discuss with the public information or communications officer how the library will inform non-staff workers of the disaster and decide who will handle the different aspects of the communication. Create a basic press release for the public and a script for informing staff of where to go and who will be needed when.

Disaster response

The above disaster-response planning is performed when all is sane and quiet, and decisions are made in a rational, carefully considered manner. However, these plans are activated when all is chaos, amidst conflicting demands to restore services, collections and access to building. When it comes to dealing with the disaster, no matter what shape the disaster response plan is in, the disaster-response team should follow the plan. After the disaster is over, libraries should revise the plan to take into account issues encountered during the crisis.

Phase one: responding to notification of the disaster

The first steps in phase one of the response entail are as follows: calling for help, evacuating people from the building (whenever possible—some disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes require people to stay inside or proceed to a tornado shelter), activating the disaster-response team, and meeting at the previously selected location. Those in charge should close the building or the damaged area to the public, shut the water off, and find out if the other utilities are on or should be turned off.

Some sample immediate-response procedures are:

If there is a fire, a team member should pull the fire alarm and evacuate the building. Proceed to assemble the staff at the designated meeting place. Confirm that all people, including all staff members, have left the building. Notify the police and fire department if there are missing staff members. Do not re-enter the building.

In case of natural disasters, team members must follow the directions from the emergency management agency announcements. For tornadoes, proceed quickly to tornado shelters in basements and ground-floor rooms without windows. In the case of hurricanes and flooding, there are usually warnings issued ahead of time, so team members should instruct maintenance staff to board up the windows, turn off computer systems, make certain data backup is complete and stored off-site away from the potential disaster area, and let staff know where to report when the hurricane of flood has passed. If those inside the building cannot leave safely, they have to go to the shelters and wait for the storm to pass.

Once everything is safe, the disaster-response team leader should brief the team about the situation. Review the responsibilities of the team and call in additional staff as needed.

Phase two: assessing the situation and damage

This phase of the disaster-response plan begins when the building or area is safe to enter. First, the disaster-response team needs to assess the damage. This entails walking through the damaged area to see what really happened while making a list of the areas that require pack-out, cleanup, or removal to storage. In addition to the disaster-response team, the information systems team should be called in to determine the extent of damage to the online public access catalog, circulation systems, website, and all electronic resources. Next, team members should brief the director of the library about the situation and activate the previously created communications plan. Together they must decide if the building or area needs to remain closed, and if so, estimate for how long. Finally, the team should assemble the necessary supplies to begin recovery and cleanup and contact the appropriate outside assistance, such as the conservation consultant, drying or disaster-response company, the insurance company (to notify that a disaster occurred).

Phase Three: Beginning to Rescue and Recover Collections

This phase kicks off with the removal of standing water and debris. Once most of this is cleared, team members should review the prioritization checklist, its previously established criteria as well as the collection policy and mission statement for the institution. They should not change the criteria or prioritization at this time. After all, decisions made under stress or when emotions are high are not always rational and justifiable.

Team members and those involved with the recovery process can use photography or video to document the damage for the insurance adjuster. If the damage is extensive they can ask the insurance company to send an adjuster who specializes in water damage claims. Copies of the floor plan can be used to prioritize recovery operations, indicate the wet items to be removed for packing and where the packing area will be. Team members should make notes of the types of damage (water, soot, debris) to different areas of the collection and the types of cleanup necessary when the recovery phase begins.

If there is structural damage to the building, such as a hole in the roof, broken windows and or holes in doors and walls, the damage should be listed. The team member responsible should contact the previously selected security company to protect the building from unauthorized persons. He or she should also ask maintenance staff to board up the damaged windows and doors and call the construction company to cover the holes in the roof. The latter must be done immediately, since the roof is a prime candidate for additional damage to the structural integrity of the building and an avenue for mold infections.

When the outside contractors for assistance with response and recovery are contacted, the disaster-response team member designated as the liaison and another assigned staff member should get together with the contractor to:

1) Review the priorities for recovery and the “to do” list.

2) Walk through the damaged area again.

3) Schedule frequent--at least daily--meetings with the contactor.

4) Document all meetings, conversations, telephone calls, and e-mail messages.

5) Provide written instructions for all changes to bid and get prices before approval of changes.

6) Approve all changes in writing.

The liaison should monitor the activities of the contractor and his/her staff: how they are handling the collection and how they are cleaning the building and collection. Your conservation consultant can help with this.

Next, individuals involved in the recovery of the collections should begin to pack the water damaged or smoke damaged items for freezing or air-drying. Freezing books buys time to dry and clean the building and assess the scope of damage and loss of collections. Air-dried books will swell and distort while drying and may need to be rebound professionally before returning them to the shelves.

The dry and undamaged items must be moved into storage or a temporary access area if a large portion of the area or building was damaged. This will prevent secondary damage from increased levels of moisture and relative humidity. If it is impractical to move the undamaged items to another location, then set up fans and drop the temperature in the damaged area. Air movement and decreased temperature will lower the chance for a mold outbreak.

Irreparably damaged items and debris should be discarded as soon as possible, so they no longer contribute moisture to the building and other materials. This includes wet ceiling tiles, and loose carpet squares. Similarly, wet curtains, area rugs, and furniture should also be removed to decrease the moisture in the area. These furnishings can be professionally cleaned and dried before storing them in a safe place, until the environment (temperature and humidity) is stabilized and the building is clean and dry. All of the above will decrease a chance for a mold outbreak.

Most people assume you raise the temperature to dry a structure. Unfortunately, if you do so, you increase the risk of mold infection in the building and HVAC system

It is important to note that stabilizing the environment should be a first priority. Most people assume you raise the temperature to dry a structure. Unfortunately, if you do so, you increase the risk of mold infection in the building and HVAC system. It also is essential to close off the space between the suspended ceiling and the true ceiling to keep dust and debris out of the HVAC system and thus the entire building.

Regarding computer equipment, all damaged or wet items must be cataloged and identified before they can be removed for cleaning, repair, and recertification. Undamaged computer equipment can be moved to a safe location, but the team member responsible for this must coordinate with the information systems’ disaster-response plan. Last but not least, a team member should check with the insurance adjuster to determine criteria for replacement of computers and restoration of service.

If the facility’s maintenance staff are available to dry and clean the building and move the collections, it is useful to have a disaster-response team member act as liaison to answer questions. He or she can provide some basic training and information about handling wet materials and packing boxes. In addition, consultants can give all personnel a quick refresher in handling and packing wet books.

Once the response and recovery operation is underway, it is important to notify the press as to the scope of the disaster, how long the library will be closed or partly closed, how to contact the institution, and whether donations or assistance is needed. To maintain a cohesive message to the public, it is important that the designated spokesperson or public relations officer from the institution is the only person speaking directly with the media.

In the case of a wide-area disaster, where the building or surrounding areas are destroyed or untenable, the library needs to relocate to another branch—if the library is part of a branch system—or a (preselected) location altogether.

When the disaster has only affected an isolated area, the director can choose to reopen the library. In this case, the team should determine how to get the undamaged materials to patrons while keeping them out of the damaged area. While being repaired, the relative humidity and temperature of the damaged area should be checked to confirm that the HVAC system is keeping the environment stable.

Crisis counseling and disaster plan modifications

During the response and recovery phases, adrenaline is surging through library workers’ staff’ veins, making emotions run high, a symptom of physical and mental stress. Sometimes the stress manifests itself in an inability to function, a feeling of guilt and a drop in morale. To address and monitor the psychological impact of a disaster, a library director can arrange for grief or crisis counselors to meet with staff. Once the situation has returned to normal, staff members can talk with these counselors in groups or individually to process their experiences.

This is also the time to bring together staff, disaster-response team members, and outside contractors to discuss and analyze the disaster and its aftermath in practical terms. It is important to answer questions and evaluate the response plan for its strong and weak points and to modify the plan accordingly. For example, during the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the windows of the Metropolitan Library shattered. The disaster-response team members discovered their first-aid kits were inadequate for dealing with anything more than a small cut or a minor injury. Their first task upon evaluating the disaster-response plan was to upgrade the first-aid kit to include more supplies to deal with medical emergencies.

In terms of such revisions, the person in charge should avoid making the plan so specific that it only covers the previous disaster. He or she should keep the disaster-response team’s roles and responsibilities generic, while considering additional activities to make recovery faster and more efficient.

It is clear that disaster-response planning is a lot of work and because of ever-changing circumstances, such as renovations, reorganizations, and new or leaving staff, the job is never done. In order to be effective, the plan needs to be revised and updated regularly. Nevertheless, all these efforts pay off. Designing a plan and following through with it will ensure that a library stays in business rather than fails to reopen.


Becker, S., Crandall, M.D., Fisher, K.E., Kinney, B., Landry, C., & Rocha, A. (2010). Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries. (IMLS-2010-RES-01). Institute of Museum and Library Services. Washington, D.C. (accessed on August, 14, 2016).
Kahn, Miriam. 2012. Disaster Response and Planning for Libraries, Third Edition, American Library Association.
Silverman, Randy. 2006. “Toward a National Disaster Response Protocol” Libraries & the Cultural Record pp. 497-511.

  1. This percentage is based on Miriam Kahn's personal experience working with libraries. 

  2. This article is based on: Kahn, Miriam. 2012. Disaster Response and Planning for Libraries, Third Edition, American Library Association. 

  3. A disaster does not mean the institution will get a completely new collection. Very few if any institutions have the insurance to cover the cost of purchasing an entire collection. The only time an institution may have the opportunity to do so is when the building burned to the ground or lost in a flood. 

  4. Local companies and businesses can be contacted in case of an isolated small-scale disaster, if a whole community is affected, their regional counterparts should be contacted. 

  5. It is important for the person or company providing assistance to be familiar with the collection and the institution’s policies. The outside consultant or company is not emotionally tied to the collections and is therefore capable of presenting choices and options where the staff’s emotions and attachment to materials may rule. Consultants provide additional assistance by recommending disaster response/drying companies and others who specialize in conservation of the unique, fragile, and non-print or nonpaper items in the collections. Conservation centers also provide conservation of specific items that require specialized treatments. Such items should have been identified during the prioritization phase. Conservators can also provide you with guidelines for removal and stabilization.