Disaster Management for Libraries and Archives

Eric Hunter (Emeritus Professor of Information Management, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, United Kingdom)

New Library World

ISSN: 0307-4803

Article publication date: 1 July 2004




Hunter, E. (2004), "Disaster Management for Libraries and Archives", New Library World, Vol. 105 No. 7/8, pp. 303-304. https://doi.org/10.1108/03074800410551057



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Many years ago this reviewer undertook research into the role that the public library had played in the development of technical education in Great Britain. One of the many authorities investigated was Norwich, which was the first to adopt the 1850 Public Libraries Act and which built a School of Art and Design on the top floor of its rate‐supported library under the provisions of the 1855 act. In the next century, a new central library building was opened in Norwich in 1963, a vibrant hub of the Norfolk County Library Service. In 1994, I was extremely saddened, particularly because of my earlier research association, to learn that this building and much of its stock, including the archives of the Norfolk County Record Office, had been destroyed or damaged by fire, or by associated smoke and water.

Last year, 2003, I re‐visited Norwich and went to have a look at its new library. I was heartened to see that an absolutely magnificent phoenix had arisen from the ashes. However, the Norwich experience reflects a long and difficult road to recovery and illustrates vividly why the subject of this book is of such importance.

If librarians in Britain were asked to say which recent library disaster came immediately to mind, most of them would cite Norwich. But librarians in other countries have different memories and fire is, of course, only one of the many potential hazards. There are natural phenomena such as floods and earthquakes, the horrific effects of war and armed conflicts, and, increasingly today, the danger of terrorist acts. As I write, an earthquake in Morocco has caused enormous damage and loss of life and we all remember what happened in America on 11 September 2001.

Clearly one never knows when tragedy may strike and the well‐remembered boy scout motto of “be prepared” is a good maxim to follow. Thus the work under review, which “aims to bring together current professional and practical opinions and advice on key aspects of disaster management based on first hand experience” begins with a chapter on “The disaster control plan”, by Heather Mansell, which is defined as:

… a clear, concise document which outlines preventive and preparatory measures intended to reduce potential risks, and which also provides details of reaction and recovery procedures to be undertaken in the event of a disaster to minimise its effect.

Mansell makes many useful suggestions relating to all of the various aspects of a disaster control plan. She states that “hard‐copy” is to be preferred for such plans but is there not a danger that hard‐copy versions may be destroyed, in a fire for instance?

Subsequent chapters focus on the four phases of disaster management identified in the above definition: prevention, preparedness, reaction and recovery. Alice Cannon advises on “Risk management”, Bill Jackson prepares us “In case of fire” and Christine Wise helps with “Flood prevention and recovery”.

Risk management is already currently used in an informal manner but Cannon believes that greater formalisation would be of benefit. It seems likely that organisations throughout the world will adopt risk management techniques with greater frequency in coming years.

Jackson's chapter is based on his experiences as building manager of the National Library of Scotland. It includes a practical fire protection self‐inspection checklist, adapted from the National Fire Protection Association list.

Wise covers both the strategic and operational steps required to anticipate, prepare for and react to a flooding incident. She includes a case study of the flooding of the Fawcett Library, London Guildhall University in 1994.

Sheryl Davis and Kristen Kern deal with the advantages of libraries co‐operating to help each other manage disasters in a chapter entitled “Co‐operative activity in the USA, or misery loves company” (I like the sub‐title). This chapter relates the California experience and other US initiatives, the former triggered not by an earthquake but by arson at the Los Angeles Central Public Library in 1986. The authors conclude that co‐operation can take different forms but uniting together to prepare a response for emergencies makes good sense. The more libraries that do it, the better is the chance of protecting precious resources.

The effect on people is clearly important and this is dealt with in a chapter entitled “Psychological aspects of disaster management” by Maj Klasson, whose interest in the subject began when a fire was intentionally started by a pyromaniac in the Central Library of her hometown of Linköping, Sweden. She tells us that reports of results of disasters often fail to mention the psychological aspect but that there can be a devastating effect on staff and users, in terms of mental stress, which may take a long time, even years, to overcome. Staff morale can also be affected. Ironically, and conversely, a disaster can prove to be an excellent publicity opportunity.

Where war is concerned, Kornelija Petr describes “The Croatian experience 1991‐1995”. Petre tells us that, unlike countries frequently affected by natural disasters, neither the country of Croatia nor its libraries were prepared for the scope of aggression and destruction which was engendered. Libraries and other cultural institutions were destroyed or damaged; the flow of information and materials was halted or hampered; book stocks were depleted; library staffs were reduced due to the movement of women from the war zones; working conditions were extremely difficult. There were no clear guidelines about what to do. However, in spite of all of this, libraries proved to be invaluable sources of comfort.

The Norwich experience, referred to above, is related in “Aftermath – service continuity and recovery”, by John Creber, who, as assistant director of Libraries and Information in Norfolk, managed the recovery process. He highlights the many problems that had to be overcome: the fact that the trauma and upheaval experienced is not the most stable of platforms on which to base a planned approach; the difficulty of obtaining finance; the protracted negotiations; and so on. Nevertheless the disaster proved, in hindsight, to be a blessing and Norwich can now boast one of the finest public libraries in the country. This is not the only example in the book of triumph emerging from adversity and this is a message that strikes the reader most forcibly.

The editors have written and researched widely in the disaster and preservation management field and the contributions are authoritative and well‐written by academics and practitioners from around the world. Although the work is concerned with libraries and archives, the practitioners are not necessarily librarians or archivists; for example Alice Cannon, who is currently the preventive conservator at Artlab Australia, trained as a paper conservator in the University of Canberra and Bill Jackson is a chartered building surveyor.

As the “Preface” states, a disaster management text cannot be fully comprehensive, so this work should perhaps be viewed as a “selection” rather than a “representative collection”. For example, as someone interested in information technology, I looked for coverage of disaster management in the area of electronically held information and materials but found very little, although Graham Matthews deals with it briefly in his “Introduction” and there are a number of references to further reading in the “Computers and networks” section of his “Guide to sources of information”.

It is claimed that this book “offers advice and insight for managers beginning to work on, or reviewing, disaster management within their organizations” and this claim is certainly justified. It is a positive addition to the growing literature on the subject. However, the price of the book, at £45.00, is considered somewhat high but, if disaster strikes and the lessons of this work have been learned, so that appropriate disaster management measures are in place, then it could be prove to be a bargain.

One of the chapters that is most moving is the one on “The Croatian experience”. In ending this review, I cannot do better than to repeat what the author writes at the end of her piece:

I hope that this chapter will be a warning to everyone who reads it that records kept at libraries, archives and museums must be well protected and plans must be made for their protection well before any disaster strikes. The records they preserve represent a nation's cultural heritage and identity and are too valuable to be left at risk.

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