By Stephanie Campbell, MLIS
Nobody likes thinking about it, but no matter what part of the country you live in, disasters can strike at any moment. While it’s impossible to avoid natural catastrophes completely—even manmade ones—we can be prepared for them with policies, procedures, and supplies.
Disasters take many forms. From fire (wildfires, volcanos, lightning strikes, HVAC and electrical system failures) to water (hurricanes, floods, sprinkler system glitches and roof leaks) to debris (earthquakes, mudslides, fallen trees, broken windows, building collapses), preparedness is the key to dealing with crises as they happen and in their aftermath. Here are some key strategies to help you face whatever fate throws at your library.
Do you have evacuation procedures in place? Do you practice them? Coordinate with your local fire department to schedule fire drills and fire extinguisher training. Schedule annual courses in certification for first responder, CPR, and AED. Check in with the central station of your security system to ensure they have up-to-date contacts and backups for both emergencies and disruptions such as outages.
Make sure building systems are inspected and maintained: heating, cooling, and electrical equipment both inside and outside your building. Report overhanging and dead trees or power lines that threaten your building, check chimney flashing, gutters and downspouts. Identify roof areas prone to ice dams, particularly those adjacent to sidewalks and doorways.
Pennsylvania and much of the Mid-Atlantic had record rainfall this summer. Many public schools were forced to delay opening due to mold problems. Even though no flooding had occurred in some places, high humidity alone was enough to damage classroom furniture and materials and jeopardize the health of students and employees.
Staff should constantly monitor their work environment and report active and potential infrastructure problems. Be diligent in checking basements, stairwells, and little used corners and rooms. Make note of soot surrounding duct vents, cracks in walls, bubbling paint, and stained ceiling tiles.
Internet and/or short-term power outages can be overcome with backup circulation systems, emergency lights, and more, but it’s in everyone’s best interest to have policies that state under what conditions you will remain open, and for how long. Set minimum and maximum temperatures under which your building will remain open or close its doors. Rooms without natural light should be evacuated during power failures.
Traditionally, libraries aspire to be open at all costs. But I see this trend changing. I remember working in near darkness, with no heat, electricity, telephone, or running water. I also remember enduring major capital projects (lighting replacements and roofing installations) with deafening noise and dust showering down. These are at best, uncomfortable, and at worst, unsafe environments for staff and patrons alike.
Similarly, there is little reward in staying open too long during winter storms that make travel dangerous. Libraries in cities and walkable neighborhoods are sometimes tempted to remain open too long. While school district closings can be used as a guide, a better indicator of storm severity is retail and/or public transportation. It’s generally better to close completely than to work around blocked entrances, ladders and scaffolds, and snowy or icy conditions that make it difficult to keep up with salting sidewalks and plowing parking lots.
For those times when the power goes out, or you find areas of your building damaged, make sure you have emergency kits set up in strategic places: flashlights, plastic sheeting to quickly protect shelving, disposable gloves, dust masks, goggles, garbage bags, and paper towels for preliminary cleanups. If possible, obtain fans and dehumidifiers, or know where to get them if needed. Familiarize yourself with local industrial cleanup services.
These may seem like onerous responsibilities, especially in light of all we’re asked to do as librarians. But we’re in a public service industry, and the safety of our patrons and staff is paramount!
Feel free to share your words to the wise regarding emergency preparedness. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst!
Here are some additional resources to help your library prepare for a natural disaster:
Library Disaster Preparedness & Response
Library of Congress Emergency Management
Stephanie Campbell has worked for more than 20 years in public, academic, and special libraries. She is an avid gardener, bicyclist, and kayaker. Click here for more.