Provenance the Web MagazineISSN 1203-8954 - Vol.1, No.2 March 1996

Disaster Planning For Libraries And Archives: Understanding The Essential Issues

Jan Lyall, Director National Preservation Office, National Library of Australia

Reproduction of: Lyall, Jan, (1995). 'Disaster planning for libraries and archives: Understanding the essential issues', Proceedings of the Pan-African conference on the preservation and conservation of library and archival materials, Nairobi, Kenya: 21-25 June 1993, IFLA, ISBN 90-70916-51-7, p103-112. (reproduced with the author's permission). N.B. extensive Bibliography.

  1. Introduction
  2. Description of a disaster plan
  3. Basic elements of a disaster plan
  4. Reasons For Failure
  5. Results Of Failure
  6. How To Avoid Failure
  7. How To Measure Success
  8. Conclusion
- Bibliography
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1. Introduction

Many publications detailing the procedures involved in the preparation of disaster plans are now available. A selection of these is listed in the attached bibliography. This paper does not reiterate the useful information in those publications but concentrates on the basic management aspects of disaster planning.

2. Description Of A Disaster Plan

A disaster plan is a document which describes the procedures devised to prevent and prepare for disasters, and those proposed to respond to and recover from disasters when they occur. The responsibility for performing these tasks is allocated to various staff members who comprise 'the disaster team'.

A comprehensive disaster plan consists of several independent but interrelated smaller plans. Every disaster has three phases: before, during and after. A variety of plans is required to cope with each of these phases.

In the 'before phase', which corresponds to everyday routine operations, two types of plan should be in operation: preventive and preparedness. Preventive plans recommend actions that will prevent most disasters. They include recommendations such as the repair of leaking roofs, the improvement of maintenance and the upgrading of security. Preparedness plans are designed to ensure that identified disasters can be managed. They recommend actions such as the identification of important items in the collection, the purchase of plastic sheeting, the provision of freezing facilities and the training of staff to enable them to respond to a variety of disasters.

In the 'during phase' a response to the disaster must be made. The effectiveness of the response is governed by the thoroughness of the preparedness plan.

In the 'after phase' recovery plans are implemented. Due to the unique nature of every disaster, recovery plans can never be formulated in detail. However most disasters affecting libraries and archives involve water damage. The water can originate from a variety of sources including: from extinguishing a fire, from a burst water pipe, leaking roof or blocked drain, or from cyclone damage. Consequently, all key personnel should be familiar with salvage methods for wet library and archival materials.

In each of the preventive, preparedness, response and recovery plans it is essential that consideration is given to all areas likely to be affected by the disaster. These areas are:

  • personnel: - including staff, users and visitors
  • collections and records: - including all categories of archival records, serials, monographs, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, computer discs, optical and video discs, pictorial materials, and their related catalogues. It is also important to consider the protection of the institution's vital records. These are usually considered to be those records without which the institution could not operate. All legal documents, essential files and financial records are included in this category
  • building and equipment: - including equipment, vehicles, air conditioning plant, plumbing, electrical services and computers

The relationships between the various phases of a disaster and the corresponding disaster plans re shown schematically in Figure 1. Each type of plan must take into account personnel, collections and the building.

Figure 1. Types of Disaster Plan
All preventive activities should be incorporated into the day to day operations of the institution. Once the disaster plan has been formulated it is important to decide how much time can be devoted to preparedness. A balance must be struck: disaster planning may prevent other essential operations, such as cataloguing, filing and user services, from being carried out. Too much time ought not to be spent on disaster planning activities: only enough for the institution to be adequately prepared.

3. Basic Elements Of Preparing A Plan

Since a disaster plan must apply to the building and all its contents, including people, collections, records and equipment, it is highly desirable that the plan be prepared by a team rather than an individual. There are five main steps in preparing a disaster plan:

  • conducting a risk analysis
  • identification of existing preventive and preparedness procedures
  • making recommendations to implement additional preventive and preparedness procedures
  • allocating responsibilities
  • devising procedures to respond to and recover from disasters.
Step 1: Conducting a risk analysis
The first step is to conduct a risk analysis. A useful model for examining risks is shown in Figure 2, in which the number 1 represents occurences with the greatest risk and 4 represents those with the least risk.

Figure 2. Risk Analysis Model
The purpose of the risk analysis is to identify those occurrences which pose the greatest threat to the organisation and its collections. Having carried out the risk analysis it is then possible to develop procedures to eliminate those risks or to reduce their impact should they occur. Using the model in Figure 2 it can be said that the purpose of a disaster plan is to eliminate all category 1 risks and to develop procedures to reduce the number of risks in all other categories.

See Table 1 below for examples of risks that can be assigned to the different categories.

Table 1

Category Probability and Effect -- Examples
1 - high probability, high effect -- fire, cyclone, flood, civil unrest, earthquake, dust storms, burst water main
2 - high probability, low effect -- leaking tap, poor environmental conditions, theft, vandalism
3 - low probability, high effect -- earthquake, nuclear war, civil unrest
4 - low probability, low effect -- collapse of bookshelf, theft, vacuum cleaner malfunction

Table 1. Risk Categories and Examples

It must be remembered that risks are not static, but rather vary as conditions change. For example, the risk of fire is much greater during building alterations are taking place than during normal operations.

Risk analyses will produce different patterns for different organisations. Factors such as geographic location, building construction, political environment, number of staff, overcrowding and use patterns will have a bearing on the result of the analysis. For example theft may be a category 4 risk in one institution but a category 1 risk in another.

Step 2: Existing procedures

The second step in preparing a disaster plan is to identify the existing preventive and preparedness procedures, which most organisations already have. Such procedures will vary among organisations and will range from security, storage procedures, cleaning practices, through binding and fumigation operations to fire safety precautions. These activities are rarely the responsibility of a single individual and it is frequently difficult to identify all staff members who have some responsibility for a particular activity related to disaster planning.

Step 3: Recommendations for improvement

The third step in preparing the plan is to make recommendations for additional procedures to prevent and prepare for high probability disasters, that is those in Categories 1 and 2.

Most disasters in Category 1 cannot be prevented but the effect of some can be mitigated by implementing appropriate preventive procedures. For example, in a cyclone area, buildings should be built to a specified anti-cyclone standard.

Preparedness plans are usually the most important in coping with disasters in Category 1. Preparedness includes insuring collections, creating and periodically updating contingency plans, assembling emergency supplies, identifying important parts of the collections, allocating salvage priorities, identifying alternative storage sites, providing adequate fire protection, and providing opportunities for staff to be aware of what is expected of them in the event of disaster.

Response and recovery will be virtually automatic if an appropriate number of people are, and remain, informed.

Despite the variety of disasters in this category the most common risk to collections from all types of disaster is water damage. Most wet library and archival material is salvageable so comprehensive preparedness plans for coping with water damage are essential.

(References detailing salvage procedures can be found in the bibliography)

Although many Category 2 disasters can be prevented simply by implementing adequate preventive practices, some consideration will usually have to be given to preparedness. Preventive activities, once they have been identified, can generally be built into the institution's ongoing maintenance program, with the provision that they are never put on the 'deferred maintenance' list in times of economic restraint. One of the aims of this exercise of implementing preventive procedures is to move as many events as possible from Category 2 to Category 4.

Category 3 risks should be considered, but most have such a low probability that special precautions do not need to be developed. An example would be an earthquake in an area where earthquakes are extremely rare.

As stated above, the aim of a disaster plan is to minimise risks and to move as many as possible into Category 4.

Recommendations must be achievable and will depend on many factors including those below.

  • Availability of funds. Some recommendations such as building improvements and improved maintenance usually require additional money. If funds are not available such recommendations cannot be implemented. However, a recommendation could be made to obtain funds.
  • Availability of facilities. If certain facilities are not available there is little point in developing a plan which relies on them. For example, there is no point in recommending that wet material be frozen if freezing facilities are not available.
  • Availability of trained personnel. Many countries do not have trained conservators. In these cases it is necessary to train staff to carry out emergency treatments and to seek professional advice.

When making recommendations it is important to remember that every disaster is unique; the occurence and nature of actual disasters can rarely be predicted. Plans therefore must be flexible. With the implementation of a satisfactory plan day-to-day disasters cease to be disasters: they become minor incidents.

Step 4: Allocation of responsibilities

The broad ranging nature of a disaster plan results in the involvement of many staff. Some of the tasks likely to be identified and the corresponding staff who could be responsible for their implementation are shown in Table 2.

Table 2.

A. Preventive Actions
Affected Area Recommended Action Responsibility People
Building Replace worn carpets / Repair faulty wiring Building Manager Electrician
Building Upgrade maintenance on plumbing and electrical services Building Manager
Building Improve security Security Officer
Building Maintain records of incidents and recommend improvements Safety Officer
CollectionsImprove shelving in stacks Building Manager
CollectionsImprove security in reading rooms Security Manager
Collections Introduce regular cleaning inServices Officer
Collections Investigate fumigation procedures Preservation Officer

B. Preparedness Actions
Affected Area Recommended Action Responsibility People
. Hold regular evacuations Safety Officer
. First aid training Training Officer
Building Install new signs Designer
Building Maintain liaison with emergency services Building Manager
Building Purchase additional fire extinguishers Services Officer
Collections Insurance provisions Finance Officer
Collections Identify important material and determine priorities for salvage Librarians, Archivists & Curators
Collections Maintain lists of emergency contacts Building Manager, Preservation Officer & Personnel Manager
Collections Maintain lists of materials and availability Preservation Officer
CollectionsArrange for copying and offsite storage of catalogues and shelf lists Catalogue Section & Librarians
Collections Maintain lists of approved salvage techniques Preservation Officer
Collections Maintain cooperation with other organisations - local, national and international Director
Collections Form and train recovery teams Preservation Officer

Everybody who has a role to play in the preventive and preparedness phase should be identified and their responsibility clearly stated.

Step 5: Response and recovery procedures

In devising responce to and recover procedures, it is important to state in the plan which staff members have responsibility for declaring a state of emergency and implementing the plan. Other procedures to be covered include dealing with the media, processing insurance claims, directing recovery teams, contacting freezing facilities, collecting recovery materials, contacting specialist conservators and reporting damage to the government or appropriate authority.

Disaster plans are usually presented as large documents detailing each of the preventive, preparedness, response and recovery plans. The responsibility for executing individual tasks often is not clearly attributed. It is essential to incorporate into the plan a list of all members of the disaster team, clearly stating their responsibilities during all phases of a disaster. The frequency with which their tasks need to be carried out should also be specified.

In general preventive tasks can be incorporated into the library's regular maintenance program but many preparedness tasks fall outside the scope of normal activities and are easily neglected. For a disaster plan to be successful it is necessary to have the multitude of tasks comprising the plan coordinated by a committed, and preferably senior, staff member. The task of maintaining a disaster plan is a continuing activity. It is not something which has to be done only when a disaster occurs.

4. Reasons For Failure

The main reason for failure is lack of awareness: - plans do not work if they remain on a shelf. People make plans work, by being familiar with their contents.

In the preparative stages, staff from many different areas of the library are brought together to work on the task of developing a disaster plan and a spirit of unity is engendered. However, when the plan is complete, staff return to their work areas and unless they are brought together on a regular basis this spirit dies. Without this sense of unity the plan is almost certainly doomed to failure. For a plan to be effective it is necessary that all staff know their own responsibility, are aware of others' responsibilities and communicate with each other.

Keeping up with the preparedness aspects of a disaster plan is crucial to its success. It is essential that the library remain committed to the plan. It is easy to push some of the tasks on the preparedness list into the 'too hard basket'. A task which frequently suffers this fate is allocating priorities for salvage. Others may be less difficult but take up precious time and so become neglected. One such task is holding regular evacuations.

Another reason plans fail is the inability to predict the nature of disasters - each disaster is unique. When a disaster occurs it is very important to remember that sufficient time must be devoted to conducting a thorough examination of the disaster site. It is essential that the cause of the disaster be determined as quickly as possible. If water is pouring over a collection it is just as important to discover where the water is coming from and to stop it at its source as it is to cover up the books. Monitoring of the disaster site, especially after a fire, is essential. Fires have a habit of breaking out again after they are believed to have been extinguished.

To enable staff to adapt the written disaster plan to a specific situation and to become familiar with working together it is useful to stage mock disasters on a regular basis. It is impossible to cover all eventualities in the written plan and staging of mock disasters provides a practical method of testing the plan.

If a disaster results in total destruction of a library or archive, having a disaster plan will not assist in the recovery of the collection. It will however serve a useful purpose in that staff will have had to face the prospect of a disaster and will be able to cope better with the reality than they would have been able to without any disaster preparedness training. They will be able to commence the task of rebuilding the collections and the building.

In summary, plans fail due to:

  • lack of awareness of contents of plan,
  • unpredictability of disasters,
  • lack of adequate examination of disaster scene,
  • size of disaster.

5. Results Of Failure

Failure could be reflected in any one or all of the three essential library areas - people, building and collections.

If the building, its services and facilities are not returned to an operational level the organisation will not be able to function.

If the collections are not salvaged and returned to circulation or made available for use there will be a reduction and perhaps even a loss of library services. Money will be needed to replace lost collections.

If the institution's records are destroyed it will not operate effectively for some time.

If staff are not informed of developments during the 'after' phase, when they may have to work in an uncomfortable environment, they will become discontented: grievances, illness and absenteeism will increase.

6. How To Avoid Failure

Having gone to the trouble of preparing a disaster plan, it is important to revise it frequently and to ensure that all staff are familiar with its contents. One of the best methods of maintaining staff awareness is to practice the plan regularly.

One way of practicing the plan, which is not recommended, is to have frequent disasters. Indeed, if the plan is effective, frequent disasters should be prevented. However, in some instances, such as in very old buildings and in tropical countries frequent disasters are often unavoidable. Regardless of the frequency of unavoidable disasters, training sessions, including mock disasters, should be held on a regular basis to ensure that all staff are familiar with the disaster plan.

As mentioned previously the preventive procedures can usually be incorporated into the regular maintenance program of the library. It is the preparedness activities which tend to be ignored and these are the ones which are vital in coping with a real disaster.

Another factor to be borne in mind is that the larger the library, the more staff it has, and the greater is the effort required to coordinate the activities of all staff involved in a disaster plan. In a small library staff tend to know each other, know each others' home telephone numbers and are aware of what is going on in the library.

The key element in avoiding failure is for all staff, especially senior staff, to remain committed to the plan.

7. How To Measure Success

Some performance indicators for measuring success are:

  • frequency of disasters
  • time required for the library to return to normal operations
  • quantity of material lost
  • value of material lost
  • quantity of material requiring conservation
  • time required to repair the building
  • response of staff to disaster; whether they can operate in less then optimal conditions and maintain reasonably high morale.

8. Conclusion

Disaster planning is becoming an essential component of the overall management plan for a library or archive. The importance of an effective disaster plan is regularly demonstrated in institutions which are strongly committed to their plans. There is ample evidence to indicate that to be effective, a plan must be incorporated into the day-to-day management of an institution. A well thought out and presented plan is useless if it exists solely as a document on a shelf.



A. General

  • Anderson, Hazel and McIntyre, John E. Planning Manual for Disaster Control in Scottish Libraries and Record Offices. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1985.
  • Bohem, Hilda. Disaster Prevention and Disaster Preparedness. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California, 1978.
  • Buchanan, Sally. Disaster Planning: Preparedness and Recovery for Libraries and Archives: A RAMP Study with Guidelines. Paris: Unesco, 1988.
  • Buchanan, Sally. 'Disaster: Prevention, Preparedness and Action', Library Trends 30, 2 (1981): 241 - 252.
  • England, Claire and Evans, Karen. Disaster Management for Libraries: Planning and Process. Ottawa: Canadian Library Association, 1988.
  • Jenkin, Ian Tregarthern. Disaster Planning and Preparedness: An Outline Disaster Control Plan. Boston Spa: British Library, 1987.
  • Miller, R. Bruce. 'Libraries and Computers: Disaster Prevention and Recovery.' Information Technology and Libraries 7, 4 (1988): 349 - 358.
  • Morris, John. The Library Disaster Preparedness Handbook. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association, 1986.
  • Ungarelli, Donald L. 'Insurance and Prevention: Why and How?'. Library Trends 33 (Summer 1984): 57 - 67.
B. Salvage Techniques
  • 'Fumigation'. Conservation of Library Materials: The Newsletter of the Special Interest Group of the Australian Library and Information Association 5 (1989): 1 - 4.
  • McCleary, John M. Vacuum Freeze-Drying, a Method Used to Salvage Water-Damaged Archival and Library Materials: A RAMP Study with Guidelines. Paris: Unesco, 1987.
  • Olson, Nancy B. 'Hanging Your Software Up to Dry'. College and Research Libraries News 47, 10 (1986): 634 - 636.
  • Osborne, Larry N. 'Those (In) Destructible Disks; or, Another Myth Exploded'. Library Hi-Tech 7, 3 (1989): 7 - 10, 28.
  • Parker, A.E. 'The Freeze-Drying Process', Library Conservation News no. 23 (April 1989): 4 -6, 8.
  • Waters, Peter. Procedures for Salvage of Water-Damaged Library Materials. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979.
C. Some Disasters Described
  • Belyaeva, Irina. 'Phased Conservation at the Library of the USSR Academy of Sciences'. Conservation Administration News 46 (1991): 1, 3, 7.
  • Burgess, Dean. 'The Library Has Blown Up!' Library Journal (1 October 1989): 59 - 61.
  • Butler, Randall. 'The Los Angeles Central Library Fire'. Conservation Administration News 27 (1986): 1 - 2, 23, 27.
  • 'Leningrad Library Fire'. Abbey Newsletter 12, 4 (1988): 59 - 61.
  • Lenzuni, Anna. 'Coping with Disaster'. In Preservation of Library Materials: Conference Held at the National Library of Austria, Vienna, April 7 - 10, 1986, ed. Merrily A. Smith, Vol. 2, 98 - 102. Munchen: K.G. Saur, 1987.
  • Morris, John. 'Los Angeles Library Fire - Learning the Hard Way', Canadian Library Journal 44, 4 (1987), 217 - 221.
  • 'Special Report: Fire at the USSR Academy of Sciences Library'. Library Journal (15 June 1988): 10, 12.
  • Strong, Gary E. 'Rats! Oh No, Not Rats!' Special Libraries 76, 2 (1987): 105 - 111.
  • Sung, Carolyn Hoover, Leonev, Valerii Pavlovich and Waters, Peter. 'Fire Recovery at the Library of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR'. American Archivist 53 (1990): 298 -312.
  • Underhill, Karen & Butler, Randall. 'Twas the Day after Christmas...'the Northern Arizona University Cline Library Flood', Conservation Administration News no. 46 (July 1991): 12 -14.
  • Waters, Peter. 'Phased Preservation: A Philosophical Concept and Practical Approach to Preservation'. Special Libraries 81, 1 (1990): 35 - 43.
  • Watson, Tom. 'Out of the Ashes: The Los Angeles Public Library'. Wilson Library Bulletin (December 1989): 34 - 38, 41.

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Last update Feb.10, 1996 0012, Oct.05, 1997Web Admin.