Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Disaster Management for Libraries and Archives

Ian Lovecy looks at a useful consolidation of approaches to disaster management.

The aim of this book is ambitious: it sets out to present current professional and practical ideas on the whole range of disaster management, from the precautions which will prevent - or at least minimise - disaster, through the financial considerations, balancing of risk, and staff training needs, to the process of recovery and re-establishment of a service. It does so in an international context; and it does so based on the practical experience of the contributors.

None of this is, of course, entirely new. There is a vast literature on the experience of disasters in library and archive services, and one of the valuable achievements of this book is to direct readers to a number of these sources. This it does both in the specific references at the end of individual chapters and in the final chapter, which is effectively a bibliography. It is helpfully laid out, with general literature sub-divided into books, chapters in books (two items only, but both key treatments of the topic), and Web sites, these being further sub-divided by major countries. There follow sections on topics covered in the rest of the book, although not following exactly the structure of the chapters. The chapters themselves follow a logical structure which might be described as before, during and after a disaster, although there is a necessary degree of overlap if the arrangement is simplified in this way. The Introduction explains this structure as it gives a brief introduction to the raison d'être of each chapter.

Before the Disaster Happens

Heather Mansell has first-hand experience of writing Disaster Control Plans (DCPs) and of training in this area; moreover she has digested and fed into her chapter comments and suggestions from colleagues in other parts of Australia, so that what we are given is more robust than a single individual's view of the subject. She emphasises the need to resource the plan - the process as well as its conclusions - the importance of training, and the value of the actual writing of the plan as a discipline which focuses management and staff on the subject. In the same way, although she acknowledges the practical necessity for a single person to write and update the plan, she points to the advantages of a committee and of rotation of the responsibility for updating as a means of raising awareness throughout the organisation.

Risk Management

This is touched on in the first chapter, but Alice Cannon deals with it in detail. She too sees the process as valuable in itself in facilitating better decision-making through the formal collection of information, and she claims it has a place in building a more cohesive management structure by focusing on the purpose of the organisation. She also indicates that the analysis of risks can be helpful more generally in obtaining resources; I have found it helpful in explaining the rationale behind applications for the re-grading of junior staff, whose mistakes can sometimes have severe consequences.

The chapter gives a brief history of risk assessment, looks at the difference between perceived and actual risk, and identifies the risks inherent in risk assessment! Among the latter is complacency, and it is perhaps unfortunate that, when noting that existing preventative measures affect the assessment of the level of risk, Ms Cannon does not note that complacency may lead to the diminution or cessation of those measures. Nor does she mention the vital role of internal audit in looking at risk assessment updates. Much of the chapter is a fairly detailed manual of how to set about establishing risk assessment and risk management procedures - none of which is new, but which it is useful to have grouped together with the more theoretical aspects. Three themes common to all the chapters in this book - implementation, documentation and communication - are also clearly stated.

Fire and Flood

In the first of two chapters dealing with the most common of disasters, Bill Jackson is concerned more with the layout and construction of a building to prevent major fire disasters than with how the consequences are dealt with. Drawing lessons from his experience at the National Library of Scotland he describes the way the Library Trustees moved from the realisation of the vulnerability of the building to a much safer arrangement, while continuing to provide a service to readers. He lists the lessons learned (p 81), but they are more those to be applied to any major building project than specific lessons about fire safety. However, in the second half of the chapter he outlines in a table all the elements of a fire safety strategy, and then elaborates this in the text. Sometimes the points seem self-evident; but experience suggests that however blindingly obvious it is that staff should keep areas tidy to avoid fire risk, a casual inspection of any library will reveal failures of implementation.

Whereas the chapter on fire precautions is based on a specific building, the chapter on floods is very general. Again, headings such as 'definition of a flooding incident' may sound more appropriate to Noddy Becomes a Safety Officer, but it is worth remembering that floods can be caused by dishwashers as well as acts of God. Christine Wise quotes a number of relevant standards and guides, and illustrates the use of constructed scenarios to assist planning. Her list of supporting documentation for a DCP is comprehensive, but it would be more helpful had she differentiated between what might be needed in the immediate aftermath (e.g. passwords and authorisations) and what provides background information to support the plan (e.g. BS 5424 : 2000). Very relevant is her emphasis on the need to document moves of materials ('Where did we put the Gutenberg Bible?'); documenting the sequence of decisions, which is also one of her recommendations, while helpful for future iterations of the DCP, might not be feasible at the height of the crisis.

Coping with the Crisis

Sheryl Davis and Kristen Kern write about the value of cooperation, and cite examples of it in the USA. They indicate how such cooperatives have come about, and in the case of IELDRN (Inland Empire Libraries Disaster Response Network) quote the mutual aid agreement in full. This provides a useful starting point for anyone drawing up a similar agreement (it has been used extensively in the USA), and while the legal phraseology may seem off-putting and contrary to the basic good will with which help is offered, it is in fact important that agreements are made as to what happens to supplies in the event of a member's withdrawal. Both writers point out that cooperation in disaster management may lead to other cooperation; looking at some of the cooperatives mentioned it is clear that in some cases the networks existed before they turned their attention to this topic - as is the case with the M25 group of academic libraries in London.

An area which is often overlooked as managers survey gutted buildings and soggy books is that of the human reactions of staff - and of users. Maj Klasson uses her study of both groups after the arson attack on Linköping central library to show what often needs to be done. She lists the effects on both groups, and describes ways of coping with them - using a debriefing process for staff, and a 'billboard' for the public allowing them to post notes of their feelings about the library (and in this case about the arsonist also). The research is summarised in a series of recommendations (reminders and suggestions might be a better heading) at the end of the chapter.


In the first of two chapters describing actual disasters, Kornelija Petr describes the effects on libraries of the war in Croatia between 1991 and 1995. This was disaster on a national scale, one in which libraries were only a small part of the wholesale destruction, although she makes the point that the Serbian forces had a definite policy of trying to destroy the cultural heritage of the Croatian nation. Ms Petr notes a number of factors which affected libraries apart from the shelling, such as the movement of people from affected areas, the conscription of young male librarians, and the feeling of unreality in running a library service in a war; against which she sets the increased demand for reading material for people spending long hours in shelters, and for children trying to escape an intolerable reality. She writes of the mutual help and cooperation of libraries (without formal agreements), but also of the mistakes, particularly the lack of preparation and the non-existence of plans for moving the most valuable material (and valuable here relates to value as cultural heritage, not monetary value). She draws together at the end the lessons which can be learnt. In Western Europe we may be rather blasé about the idea of war; as I write this in mid-July I cannot fail to be aware that two of the bombs in London on 7th July were relatively close to the British Library and Senate House Library.

Getting Back to Normal

Any treatment of disaster needs to end on a positive note, and this book ends with a case study of the aftermath of the Norwich City Library fire in 1994. After setting the library and the level of loss in context, John Creber recounts the steps which were taken to recover stock (more was salvageable than was first thought - an important lesson to be drawn), to store what had been saved, and to re-establish rapidly a service to residents. The chapter is helpfully punctuated by lists of lessons learnt - in the immediate aftermath, in terms of decisions on stock (which may require a degree of ruthlessness), the time conservation will take, the need to support staff and users; and later on the purchase of replacements, dealing with donations, dealing with insurance claims, and finding temporary premises. The last is tied up with the question of the long-term replacement of the library building, and the need to resist a rapid solution when a better prospect looms. The chapter concludes with a picture of the excellent new Norwich City central library.


Any book written by a number of contributors, in particular one on a subject such as disaster management where all aspects interlace, is going to be repetitive in places. The first chapter strays into areas such as risk assessment and cooperative activity, while any chapter dealing with a specific sort of disaster has to refer to Disaster Control Plans. Editorial inserts of references forward or back draw attention to the fact. Equally, any book written by those whose work is primarily in this area will have a focused view of what libraries are about. To take just one example: the references to the training needs of disaster management contained in the chapter on the DCP seemed to me likely to exhaust the time staff have for training, let alone the training budget - there are other activities in a library which also need staff training. Library managers have to balance a range of activities of which disaster management is only one. Nevertheless, in doing so they could well be helped by the existence of a book which will remind them of the many elements involved, and direct them to the sources which they may need for a specific problem. In its combination of theory based on first-hand experience and lessons drawn from actual examples this book forms a very practical introduction to a topic which can elsewhere be obfuscated with jargon.

Author Details

Ian Lovecy
Library and IT Consultant

Email: ian_lovecy@hotmail.com

Ian Lovecy was formerly Librarian and Director of Information Services at the University of Wales Bangor, and subsequently Senior Strategy Adviser at the same institution, where his responsibilities included business continuity strategies.

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