Prepared: Disaster Planning and Recovery
Libraries Society of North America 29th Annual Conference, Los
Leslie Goldstein, Branch
Librarian, New York Institute of Technology
Romaine Ahlstrom, Head
Reader Services, Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Gretchen Karl, Head of
Collection Maintenance, Getty Research Institute Library
The session opened with
moderator Leslie Goldstein’s introduction to the topic.
Goldstein, a Branch Librarian for the New York Institute of Technology,
experienced a disaster involving the library’s roof and burst steam pipes
during a winter storm that prompted her to suggest this session.
Goldstein introduced Romaine Ahlstrom and Gretchen Karl, founding members
of the Steering Committee for the Los Angeles Preservation Network.
Both Alhstrom and Karl were staff members at the Los Angeles Public
Library’s Central Branch when it experienced the worst library disaster in
history. On April 29, 1986 LA
Public Library’s Central branch was set on fire by an arsonist and burned for
over 6 hours damaging 800,000 volumes.
Be Prepared, outlined the various considerations and elements of a disaster
plan. To accompany her talk, she
has created a web page called “Be prepared” with links to other websites on
disaster planning and a bibliography of disaster related materials.
The web site can be found at:
In her presentation
Goldstein stated that disaster response should take into consideration
prevention and preparedness, response, recovery or the resumption of normal
operations, review and updating of disaster plans.
A disaster plan should also include operational contingencies based on
the lack of basic services, such as electricity, gas, and phone.
She also stressed preventative preparedness by thoroughly surveying the
building and collection for potential hazards both internal and external,
keeping up on building maintenance, and regularly cleaning the collection and
Goldstein also suggested
that a floor plan should also be drawn up including salvage priorities.
She recommends that the first items to be salvaged should be those
materials that are irreplaceable and integral to your institution’s mission.
For example, rare or unique materials, photographs, works on nitrate film, or
art works. Next should include
collections that are critical to your institution such as core collections,
reference materials, microfilm masters just to name a few.
Third should be basic collection materials, followed by replaceable
materials such as serials. Last on the priority list should be those materials
that can easily be discarded, such as ephemera.
The floor plan should be reviewed and updated annually along with your
building and collection survey and building insurance.
Goldstein emphasized that
preparedness is key in disaster response. Make
sure your staff has adequate training to respond to a disaster.
Review the plan with them. Provide specialized training such as how to
use fire extinguishers or handle damaged materials.
Make sure everyone is familiar with the lines of authority, list of
vendors, and where supplies are stored. Make sure your staff has copies of the
disaster plan both at work and at home. Make
sure your plan is communicated and reviewed by other departments in your
institution and contingencies are established for their help in the event of a
When disaster strikes,
Goldstein recommended the following course of action.
Mobilize staff through established lines of communication and
responsibilities. Next contact other departments within your institution that
are part of your response team. Ensure
the safety of your staff by inspecting the building with a health and safety
officer once the disaster has been contained.
When it is safe to enter the building, stabilizing the environment.
Humidity levels should be below 35%.
Next assess the extent of the damage, take notes and document with
photographs the condition of the collection. Can the clean up be handled
in-house or is it too extensive for your facilities?
Once a decision has been reached locate your emergency supplies and begin
sorting and salvaging materials. Freeze
or air dry materials within 48 hours to prevent mold growth.
Separate and box materials by format and extent of damage.
Mark boxes clearly and keep a master list of items removed.
In case of a mold outbreak, consult with a mycologist and quarantine
effected materials. Before
returning materials to the effected area, have the area and the HVAC system
cleaned. Once materials are back on
the shelves, continue to monitor them for mold.
Once the disaster has past, spend time evaluating your response
procedures and revise your disaster plan.
In closing, Goldstein stated
that even with the best preparation and planning disasters are stressful
experiences for all concerned. Be
sure to consider the psychological effects of disaster fatigue on you and your
staff. Build staff morale by creating a sense teamwork such as starting the work
day with a meeting to address the daily needs,
taking frequent breaks, and providing snacks.
Next Romaine Ahlstrom
recounted her experiences with the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Branch
fire of 1986. As mentioned this
fire was and remains the worst library disaster on record. At the time, Ahlstrom was the Head of Rare Books and
Collection Development for the LAPL Central Branch.
She recounts that the LAPL Central Branch was in the process of drawing
up renovation plans as it had outgrown its 60-year-old library building when an
arsonist set fire to the stacks on April 29, 1986. The stacks area contained old
style shelving; four units tall stacked one top of another which allowed the
fire to burn between floors. Despite
the valiant efforts by the fire department, the library burned for over six
hours. While the firemen tried to
minimize damage by covering some areas with plastic, at the end of day, over
800,000 volumes were damaged.
The outpouring of help from
the community was staggering. 11,
000 volunteers showed up to help. Local
businesses provided the workers and volunteers with food and beverages for
breaks. Document Reprocessors, a
salvage company, also arrived on the scene with special double walled boxes for
them to use to pack out the collection and ship to cold storage. 400,000 books
were damaged beyond repair and were tossed.
Remaining 400,000 items were packed, in boxes, the boxes were marked with
the call numbers, placed on pallets and shipped to three different sites in and
around the Los Angeles area where they would remain frozen for three years until
they could be thawed and dried in a temporary building.
In the midst of packing out
the library, Ahlstrom recounts that a second disaster took place.
Another arsonist set fire to the music collection and virtually all
25,000 items from the music room were discarded.
She said in retrospect that some of these materials could have possibly
been saved but lack of time and mental exhaustion in dealing with the larger
disaster prevented them from being able to give much attention to this smaller
In the end Ahlstrom said
they were able to recover nearly all of the 400,000 items and after three years
the library was able to function somewhat from a temporary facility. To keep up
morale the library made and distributed T-shirts to their staff. Virtually all
the staff members of the Central Branch were retained through this process, some
working in other branches and others in the temporary facility.
The community supported them too with a save the books campaign that
raised 10 million dollars towards their renovation.
In 1993, after seven years, they were finally able to return to the newly
renovated Central Branch.
In closing Ahlstrom advised
to do the best disaster preparation you can, to keep your systems, such as
sprinklers and alarms up to date, and to hope is never happens to your library.
The third speaker Gretchen
Karl discussed the formation of the Los Angeles Preservation Network.
This network developed from a meeting of the Southern California
Archivists Association in the wake of the LAPL Central Branch disaster.
Karl recalls that they initiated training sessions for the handling of
wet materials at the Huntington Library. At
the session they soaked books and packed them out for freezing.
Tables were set up and everyone attending practiced.
Attendees also learned the proper technique for air drying materials.
These techniques proved
valuable when the Getty experienced a disaster. In 1994 Karl recounts that the Northridge earthquake toppled
shelves and broke pipes and sprinkler heads in the Getty.
To handle the 200 wet books, empty offices were used for interleaving and
air-drying. 100 books were packed
out, frozen and air-dried at a later date.
Some of their photograph collection was water damaged, but fortunately
the boxes took the brunt of the water and they were able to air-dry the photos.
Karl’s advice is to build
confidence in your staff that they can handle disasters.
She stresses practicing salvaging techniques to get an idea of what you
can handle in house and to see what the results are like.
Karl brought with her many examples of items that had been wet and
air-dried that session attendees were encouraged to come up and examine.
A brief question and answer
period followed, recounting other stories of disaster experiences.
Alire, Camilla ed. Library
disaster planning handbook.
New York : Neal Schuman, 2000.
Dorge, Valerie and Jones,
Sharon L. “Building an emergency plan : a guide for museums and other cultural
institutions” Los Angeles : The
Getty Conservation Institute, 1999
Preservation website accessed February
Jenkin, Ian Tregarthen
“Disaster planning and preparedness: an outline disaster control
plan” S.l. :
The British Library, 1987
Library of Congress
website accessed January 2001
Morris, John “The library
disaster preparedness handbook” Chicago : American Library Association, 1986
Conservation Center “Preservation of Library & Archival Materials: a
manual” Andover : NDCC, 1992
“Protection from loss: water and fire damage, biological agents, thefts, and
vandalism” Andover, MA :
Northeast Document Conservation Center, 1999
management, technical leaflet, Section 3, Leaflet 1
Weber, David C. “Library
buildings and the Loma Prieta Earthquake experience of October 1989”
Sacramento : California State Library Foundation, 1990
Wilhelm, Henry “The
permanence of care of color photographs: traditional and
Color prints, color
negatives, slides, and motion pictures” Grinnell, Iowa : Preservation
Publishing Company, 1993