Disaster Preparedness – 1


A written plan is the single most important step in preparing for disasters.  First, such a written document acknowledges that disasters are possible, and that there is a commitment on the part of the organization to accept responsibility in a sensible and logical way.  Second, preparation and a written plan eliminate panic, assure proper decisions, reduce the damage to collections, and limit the cost of recovery.  Third, a plan consolidates ideas and provides step-by-step instructions which are clear and easy to follow for anyone who is called upon to use them. 

Disaster planning can be divided into various phases.  The first one is the planning process itself.  It assesses collections, investigates hazards, sets priorities, and gathers facts.  Preparing a disaster plan is not necessarily an easy assignment, depending upon the size and complexity of the library or archive.  A key factor in the success of the enterprise is the endorsement of the administration for the priority of the task.  An initial step may well be some thorough education to increase awareness of the need. 

Once the plan is written, management must be willing to commit the financial resources required to make it effective.  Consequently, the person assigned to head the planning effort should also be aware of the priorities of the institution as well as the fiscal resources which could reasonably be committed.  However, since the planning process itself is almost cost free, involving only staff release time, financial concerns at this stage should not prevent the disaster plan from being produced. 


The suggestions listed below represent important steps in the planning process.  Each one is essential to ensure that a planning effort will result in a written disaster plan which will be appropriate to the institution in times of emergencies.


One person should be assigned the responsibility of organizing and seeing the plan to completion.  If an archive is very small, a single person may be all that is needed.  In a larger organization, the staff member in-charge should appoint a committee to assist in the effort, with himself or herself as head.  However she/he decides to proceed, it is important that the individual understands the structure of the organization, its management, and staff.  This understanding will ensure that the plan will follow established policies and procedures, and will be applicable to the individual institution.  The head of planning also needs to be aware of the necessity for input from many internal as well as external sources as the planning proceeds through the various phases. 

If a committee assists in the planning, it is wise to include members from a variety of library backgrounds.  For example, cataloging, collection development, and public service staff provide invaluable input and experience as do implications of destroyed shelf lists or damaged access to the collections, while public service experts are invaluable for insight into continuation of service to the users after a disaster.  Building maintenance personnel can point out all the hazards and peculiarities of a particular structure.  Some committees have found that including, if only temporarily, fire and police experts have accomplished two tasks – gaining vital information, and educating those outside to the institution’s needs and concerns.  Additionally, some communities have civil defense experts who will have experience, and often shortcuts, to contribute and suggest.


If the topic of disasters in archives is new, either to the manager in-charge or the committee, some background information and education will assist greatly in the planning process.  In the bibliography at the end of this text are some general articles about disasters which have happened to others, and accounts of recovery projects, as well as more detailed information on the specifics of recovery techniques and research.  Often inviting a consultant to talk with the planning committee will help in the education as well as the planning process.  Sometimes something as graphic as staging a mock disaster will emphasize the importance of disaster planning and preparedness.


Initially the committee should spend some time clearly defining the scope, or parameters, of the disaster plan.  This will assist in focusing the effort and in drafting all the necessary details.  Scope is dictated by a number of factors including the kind of institution in question, e.g., public, research, national, etc.; the size and complexity of the collections; the potential hazards, both internal and external; and the means and availability of services for response and recovery. 

In defining the scope of the plan, the committee must also take into consideration whether to include recovery for contents of the building other than the collections themselves.  In case of disaster there may well be damaged furniture, carpets, office equipment, computer terminals, and all the other fixtures comprising valuable assets.  If they are part of the responsibility assigned to the disaster committee, additional recovery methods and expertise will be necessary. 


Setting reasonable goals with objectives and a time frame for completion will assist in keeping planning on track and in providing a sense of accomplishment.  Goals also allow for assessment of progress and the results of planning.  They guide staff who may not be familiar with the details of disaster preparedness and recovery in seeing the direction the process is taking as well as what is expected at the outcome.  The time frame should include reasonable completion dates for all the tasks being undertaken, many at the same time, and will allow the head of the planning process to organize the effort and control the result.


Progress should be reported regularly to institutional administration, first in the planning process, and later when specific tasks are initiated to assess the preventive and protective measures which must be undertaken.  At the outset, lines of appropriate communication should be established.  For instance, does the director want to see all reports from the committee, or would she/he prefer only periodic updating through another director or source?  How should contact with building supervisors be handled?  How should recommendations for improvements and preventive measures be handled?  These and other issues should be established at the outset to avoid future conflicts or failures in implementation. 


As part of the overall planning effort, it is necessary to look at the collections and assess their values – fiscal, historical, and scholarly – as they relate to the overall goals and intentions of the organization.  This step provides guidance in setting priorities for protection and recovery.  It is much easier to make those decisions in a calm and reasoned atmosphere than when faced with a major catastrophe.  For instance, fire fighters may well ask where you want tarps thrown first over collections to protect them against water if there is a fire.  If the primary goal of a college is to provide support for undergraduate education, then a first priority for disaster protection or recovery may be those materials which support this goal rather than the salvage of special collections or minor research collections.  With input from in-house collection experts who know and understand the collections and their use, priorities can be set, and carefully recorded in the disaster plan, for the protection and recovery stages of its implementation.  Planning also includes protection for the card catalog, shelf list, or other means of accessing the collections, as well as additional records required to keep the institution functioning.