MLA Forum
Vol. IV, Issue 2, December 15, 2005

Putting Disaster Preparedness at the Top of the “To Do List”

Jeanne Drewes, Assistant Director for Access and Preservation, Michigan State University Libraries,

Disasters are on many people’s minds lately as we look at scenes of devastated areas from floods, storms, earthquakes, and fires. Michigan is relatively safe from many natural disasters but also prone to others. We may not have to worry about hurricanes, but tornadoes can do similar damage; we aren’t on a fault line but spring floods are a regular occurrence. So how does a small to midsized institution prepare for the “big one” and recover quickly from small disasters when there are so many other more pressing issues that need to be addressed? How does a library administrator find the time or even feel compelled to tell someone else to find the time to create a disaster plan when one hardly knows where to start?

Disaster planning and disaster mitigation is an ongoing process but those first steps are critical. If all you do right now is find out where the main water shut off valve is in your building that would be a start. However, if you are the only person who knows where the main water shut off valve is then you can bet that the need to turn it off is most likely to occur when you are out of town. Communication is the second most important thing to disaster planning, second only to getting started with your planning and actually writing down procedures and creating call lists.

Disaster planning can be accomplished in five steps. Each step does have multiple parts, but breaking the process down into doable steps can help get the main objective accomplished faster than you might think. These are the steps in brief:

  1. The administration has to decide that disaster planning is important and convey that to the staff. Setting reasonable deadlines for completing goals is another help in accomplishing tasks. Rather than a vague directive, a better method would be to establish a draft deadline, review the plan shortly thereafter, and settle on a final version.
  2. A disaster team should be created to deal with both planning and recovery in the event of a disaster. Sometimes it is best to assign one person to do the written plan, but a team approach is most helpful to cover all the various aspects of disaster mitigation.
  3. Insurance values should be established ahead of time. Risk management is one means to review possible scenarios and evaluate if there are ways to reduce risk. Insurance values need to be considered in conjunction with disaster planning. Establishing values for library materials before a disaster can help accomplish compensation in a timely and effective way after a disaster. This step needs to be done prior to writing a plan.
  4. A disaster manual must be created and should incorporate a process for updating. Everyone on staff should be made aware of the locations of such a plan and should have a copy of the phone tree and emergency procedures. That was not a typographical error when I wrote “locations.” It is advisable to have multiple copies of the plan located inside and outside of the library building. The plan won’t help you if it is located in the building and you are not allowed in because of the effects of a disaster.
  5. Staff has to be trained in the recovery of library materials. They need to know the procedures for closing the building, buying supplies, and contacting the appropriate people for authority to act. Training and communication is the key.

The first two steps are local decisions for each institution. The rest of this article will focus on the next two steps and offer some comment on the last step.

There are numerous library disaster plans available on the web and while it does take an effort to locate local resources that would be needed in the event of a disaster there are websites that can help you. So don’t delay, start the process and be ready when that little or large disaster strikes.

Just in case you aren’t yet convinced let me share two postings on PADG-L from a discussion on disaster planning and the value of written disaster plans.

Lynn Ann Davis, Head of the Preservation Department, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library provides insight into the recent flood at her library. She said in a June 30, 2005 posting:

“ For me the key to our plan is that it is very simple. Pretty much who what when where... The why and how are associated with the plan as attachments, and are of course part of the training. The plan worked when we had the flash flood that took out the basement (October 30, 2004). The Preservation Department was prepared to successfully deal with collection recovery issues on a scale that we had not truly imagined.”

Alice Carli, University of Rochester Sibley Library reported June 29, 2005 on a program she had heard at a music library conference. She said: “One library had no disaster plan at all and had horrendous difficulties, including (but not limited to!) mold-related illness and insurance problems (their insurer required detailed records on each of the 70,000 items lost), stemming from the fact that staff were not appraised (as they would have been through a disaster planning process) of mold and insurance pitfalls, and had no phone tree protocol in place, so all response was delayed by over a day while waiting for a key staff person to be found on vacation.”

So let’s begin. Where does one start to look for resources?

The Regional Alliance for Preservation (RAP) website has valuable information in all areas of conservation and in particular on disaster planning. RAP is a cooperative project to provide access to preservation resources. Each of the centers provides useful information in a variety of aspects of disaster planning. provides a facilities assessment guide created by Amigos Library Services in Dallas. The Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center in Nebraska has a very useful article on risk assessment and the steps to follow before writing the disaster plan.

These documents can help libraries review their risks and consider action to reduce those risks. The Ford Conservation article also addresses how to determine assets in order to establish the top priorities for recovery. Insurance valuation has to be done before a disaster if payment is to be assured. While it is never easy to put value on materials I have created a tool fr calculating the value based on subject categories and there is a downloadable Excel file with the subject area values already entered. See:

Other resources on insurance and risk management are available on my website at Lastly let me mention the 2005 ALA publication Risk and Insurance Management Manual for Libraries. This brief publication goes through the various steps needed for risk management and insurance coverage.

RAP website also has outlines for disaster plans to help libraries build all the necessary component parts for their plan. Of course it may be the case that not all areas in these sample plans are needed for your library plan but you can pick and choose the needed sections. Under Bibliographies there is a long list of resources

I find Karen Brown’s disaster outline very useful as well as the Amigos disaster plan. Solinet has a one-page list of supplies that are suggested to have on hand for recovery efforts. Knowing where to find supplies for recovery can be more easily accomplished through a searchable database, which is supported by Michigan State University. allows you to search geographically by state or national resource, by type of supplies or service needed and also provides for consultants in your area. There is also a link to CoOL, the Conservation OnLine website that has a long list of sample plans. The University of Maryland plan listed there is a very well conceived and produced disaster plan. The Baltimore Area Library Consortium disaster plan provides detailed information on recovery techniques for a wide variety of media at

The last step in disaster planning is training. Across the state there are various workshops that provide hands on training in library material recovery techniques. Just having that information in your plan will help, but actual experience is the best teacher. Wouldn’t you prefer that your first experience with recovering damaged materials be with materials that don’t belong to your library?

Of course there is much more information available on disaster planning but this guide is designed to get you started. The resources listed above can move you quickly on your way to risk assessment and disaster plan writing so that you will be prepared before those spring floods, before that frozen pipe bursts and floods your basement, before that electrical fire starts from faulty wiring.