The Wet and Wily World of Preservation Disaster Statistics

Beth Ann McGowan, PhD, MLIS​, Northern Illinois University Libraries

Although some academic and university libraries, primarily those in large, well-endowed institutions, collect statistics concerning disasters and preservation activities, there is no regular national collection of statistics about disasters in libraries. (Meyer (2009) and Peterson et al (2016)) This state of affairs is not new: academic libraries have never collected this information systematically in spite of years of keeping statistics on other preservation concerns.  For a brief period of two years, the American Library Association tried to collect disaster information related to preservation activities among libraries and other cultural heritage foundations, but that effort was quickly abandoned due to a low response to institutional surveys. Thus, with the exception of two years (2012 and 2013), our field has no data upon which to base preparation proposals for disaster related preservation issues.

Still, those very two years are tremendously instructive. As stated above, our data derives from two years of surveys on the general state of preservation in libraries. Those two years included four questions about disasters. They included three rather basic questions that were pretty straightforward  including: 1.) a question about the cost of contracts for disaster recovery vendors, 2.) a question about the state of a disaster preparedness plan in libraries, and 3.) a question about whether digital planning includes planning for disasters. But the fourth question posed in the survey was actually quite complex and multifaceted. It asked organizations to first count the number of disaster incidents an institution had experienced in five categories including: water, mold, fire, pests and other. In addition, it asked the approximate number of staff hours required to recover from each of those events and the contractor expense of each. 

The responses to this question provided much that was interesting. The first surprise was the large percentage of institutions that reported disaster incidents. The 2013 report noted that 72% of institutions had experienced disaster incidents. (Peterson, et. al, 2014, p 16) And, while the FY2012 report did not note the rate of incidents, we see from available datasets that in 2012 63% of institutions surveyed noted that they experienced a disaster incident. (ALCTS 2012 Preservation Statistics Survey Data Set) What was even more alarming and not noted in the report for either year is that most libraries that reported any incidents reported multiple incidents.  Now, when discussing the Library of Congress, with its vast holdings, we would expect multiple water incidents both years. But the Library of Congress is not an anomaly – fully three quarters of the organizations (30 of 39 in 2012 and 21 out of 28 for 2013) that reported preservation disasters in their libraries reported more than one disaster. Indeed, fully ten percent reported more than fifteen disaster incidents. (ALCTS 2012 Preservation Statistics Survey Data Set and ALCTS 2013 Preservation Statistics Survey Data Set)

These preservation disasters may not be the large scale disasters – Hurricane Katrina style – that we generally consider as disasters. But the data does tell us that small versions of these events happen all the time at a rate much higher than we might have suspected. Also, the regularity with which preservation disasters happen has much to teach us about what we should be doing and how we should be preparing. It suggests that regular statistics on this issue would be useful, that vendor contracts are more necessary than ever, and that tools for keeping such statistics should be widely available and regularly used.


ALCTS 2013 Preservation Statistics Survey Data Set.

ALCTS 2012 Preservation Statistics Survey Data Set.

Meyer, Lars. "Safeguarding Collections at the Dawn of the 21st Century: Describing Roles & Measuring Contemporary Preservation Activities in ARL Libraries." Association of Research Libraries (2009).

Peterson, Annie, Holly Robertson, and Nick Szydlowski. "Do You Count?: The Revitalization of a National Preservation Statistics Survey." Library Resources & Technical Services 60.1 (2016): 38.

Peterson, Annie, Holly Robertson, and Nick Szydlowski.”Preservation Statistics: A Survey for US Libraries. FY2013 Report” Preservation and Reformatting Section (PARS) Association of Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) and American Library Association (2014).

Preservation and Reformatting Section (PARS) Association of Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) and American Library Association. “A Survey of Preservation Activities in Cultural Heritage Institutions FY2012 Report” (2013).

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