Librarians Write the Book on Disaster Planning
August 23, 2010
Categories: Inside UNM
Nancy Dennis said, "As I was drifting off to sleep, I heard sirens at 10:30 or 11-ish. I remember thinking, oh dear somebody is having a bad day." Dennis, associate dean for facilities and access services, University Libraries, didn't yet know the bad day was going to be hers and many others' at UNM.
On April 30, 2006, Zimmerman Library suffered a serious fire that began in the basement in a section that housed journals on Latin America, Native Americans and New Mexico history. More than 30,000 volumes were lost as firefighters tried to reach the flames in a large, dark basement filled with books and smoke.
"As I was driving in to face the destruction, I was very much aware that history was being made right then and there," said Fran Wilkinson, deputy dean, University Libraries. "Zimmerman Library is one of the most valuable assets of the state of New Mexico, and I know how beloved it is." Wilkinson knew she was responsible for the library once the fire was out and the fire department left.
"I knew my words and actions were setting a tone. I knew that recovery involved much more than just replacing books and walls. It was a cultural, historical responsibility. Working together we had to determine how we were going to rebuild this library, how we were going to interact with the people who would be crushed by – not just the campus, but people from all over the state, from all over the world."
Wilkinson was surprised to find out that the building was considered a crime scene. Library employees were barred for a week while the State Fire Marshall investigated. It was the week before finals, and they had to get library services working immediately. By noon on May 1, a reference desk was set up in the Student Union Building and students were diverted to the other three library buildings on main campus. Later, library workers and contractors removed more than 200,000 volumes from the building for repair and reconditioning.
The State Fire Marshal's office still considers the Zimmerman fire an open arson case.
The disaster response and lessons learned are the focus of a new book issued by the Association of College and Research Libraries, "Comprehensive Guide to Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery," by Wilkinson, Dennis and Linda Lewis, library professor emerita.
Each author was in charge of a different aspect of the disaster recovery operation. Wilkinson organized activities of the Disaster Response Assistance Team, or DRAT. Dennis and the UNM team worked with insurance companies and contractors to remove debris and check the structural integrity of the building. Her duties included representing the library with contractors and UNM departments during the complete refurbishing of the basement and first floor of the structure.
Lewis was in charge assessing damage to the collection. "That was interesting to try to put together numbers for things that this institution purchased 50 years ago," she said. She said she wore out two adding machines in the process of calculating a loss that eventually added up to $4.5 million.
The Zimmerman basement reopened in March 2008, in spite of an unexpected flood in October 2007. A water pipe installed for the new fire suppression system broke during a stress test and flooded the entire basement, damaging walls, new shelving, wiring and carpeting.
Recovery from a major disaster usually takes years.
The authors present seven case studies of disasters at libraries throughout the U.S. The UNM case study was the quickest disaster recovery cited in the book. Tulane University is still battling over an insurance settlement for the flooding its library in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. Tulane library administrators say the great lesson learned from that disaster is to separate disaster recovery work from normal library operations, because it is so time consuming.
The book includes a model disaster recovery plan and a detailed listing of companies experienced in working with library disasters and associations that can help with reassembling a collection destroyed.
"Comprehensive Guide to Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery " can be ordered at alastore.ala.org.