Disaster Planning: Getting Started

Greg MacAyeal, Curator of the Music Library, Northwestern University

A carefully crafted disaster plan relies on accurate and easy-to-access information. The plan itself will ultimately serve as a resource when the stakes are high. If you find yourself trying to figure out how to stop a gushing water pipe while looking for contact information for your preservation specialist, you may wish you had an easy and handy guide. This is one of the many important roles a disaster plan can serve. It will save you time, remove the need to think about where certain kinds of data are kept, and allow you to devote more of your mental and physical resources to the emergency at hand.

Before writing your plan, you will need to have a lot of information already gathered. Much in the way we all collect pay stubs, receipts, W2s, etc. before preparing our annual tax returns, having all of the information at the start of writing the plan will save time. With that in mind, there are three broad categories of relevant information: people, collections, and risks.

People. Begin with your library’s organizational (org) chart. Make sure it is up-to-date, and includes contact information. The organizational chart itself may ultimately be a part of the plan, and it is the best resource for local information. Because your plan will be an internal document – not shared publicly – feel no privacy concerns about including home and mobile phone numbers. You may need to contact the Dean of Libraries or other staff during times when they are not at work. If you have established relationships with vendors who you will call to remediate disasters, gather their information as well. If you have not made vendor selections, simply make note to include contact information at a later date.

Collections. Very simply, what do you have and how and where it is located? You may wish to include building maps. Be as detailed as you can, and include material type, call number or subject information, shelving density and type, and building, room and location information. Include this for public and non-public spaces. How your collections are stored will in part determine the impact of certain kinds of disasters like fire, smoke and water. Having detailed information will help you anticipate remediation needs, and know where to place your attention.

Risks. In gathering information related to risks, you must account for as many reasonable scenarios as possible. Some disaster risks are intense and catastrophic, such as an earthquake, but others may be more subtle. An unnoticed pest infestation can also be catastrophic. While all libraries share certain disaster risks, some risks are geographically specific. A library in the Midwest is much more likely to experience a tornado than a library in California. However, the Midwestern library has a much reduced risk of earthquake. In your setting, assess the likelihood of the kinds of disasters, and first address those that present a higher risk. Move on to lower risk possibilities but certainly have a plan for all scenarios. The fundamental question is what kind of disasters could occur here? Consider natural disasters, rodent and insect infestations, fire, water from pipes, mold, and poor environmental conditions among others.

The “getting ready” stage in disaster planning is about preparing your materials. As you write a plan, you will include all of the information gathered earlier and develop action plans. Remember to keep the working document flexible. Include placeholders or notes to supply information when it becomes available. When you are faced with having to make quick decisions during a crisis, a strong disaster plan will allow you to work at your best.

Continue to the next article: Creating a Plan – Templates for Success

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