Managing the Commonplace: Small Water Emergencies in Libraries

Managing the Commonplace: Small Water Emergencies in Libraries

Gerald Chaudron (University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, USA)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/IJRCM.2016010104


When libraries undertake emergency planning, it is likely that the risks such planning attempts to address are at the catastrophic level. In the case of water-related emergencies, the literature about disaster planning focuses on 100-year floods or hurricanes rather than the more common events of burst pipes or leaky roofs. This article uses two case studies to examine the impact of small water incursions on the libraries concerned, how those libraries managed the emergencies, and what lessons were learned which will inform their planning for future incidents. The case studies show that while both incidents were water-related, they are quite different in terms of source, size, impact, recovery time, and frequency. Libraries should be planning for the small emergencies first, and then scaling up their preparation to account for the larger, less frequent events, rather than the reverse. More libraries may be persuaded to do such planning if they are preparing for a probable scenario rather than one which may only be a possibility.
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Libraries, by their very nature, are exposed to a number of risks. The materials housed therein are made of paper and other natural products which are vulnerable to damage from environmental factors such as humidity, heat, light, mold and pests, which can be exacerbated by manmade hazards including pollution and deliberate acts of destruction. While libraries continue to hold analog formats, they are moving more and more to digital formats which have their own vulnerabilities. Every library should have a plan to cope with the inherent risks and many rely on literature produced in the last thirty or more years to create emergency or disaster plans. The handbooks and guides cover the full gamut of possible emergencies and tend to use the more catastrophic events as the basis of their planning. This leads to the creation of plans which are designed to respond to the destruction wrought by a hurricane or a 100-year flood but give little assistance to coping with a burst pipe or leaking roof.

Water is the most significant threat to libraries (International Records Management Trust, 1999, p. 8), whether it is in the form of a breached levee or a leaky roof, torrential rain from a hurricane or an overflowing bathroom sink. Libraries must be prepared for all types of water emergencies but few librarians, fortunately, have to deal with catastrophic events during their careers. It is the small-scale water emergencies, the “routine” kind such as roof leaks and malfunctioning plumbing, which are a constant threat and most libraries will sustain damage from them (Dawson, 2009, p. 4, 10). Because such damage can be quite extensive, these events are still disastrous in their effects on the collections, infrastructure, staff and finances of the institution involved. While the number of books, manuscripts or other materials affected during a small water disaster may not be great, it is just as likely the most valuable items will be impacted as those on the discard list. Buildings old and new require running water, fire prevention systems and waste water disposal and all this water makes our buildings vulnerable to incursions, and the larger the building, the greater the vulnerability. Compounding the problem is human fallibility which leads to design faults, delayed or incomplete repairs, and accidental or deliberate damage which creates flaws in the tightness of the building envelope. Once released into a space, water will run wherever it can to find its lowest level, and that could be under floors, through ceilings and down walls, and into any cavity. Assuming the source of the water can be found, discovering where it went and then drying the space out can be a lengthy and possibly expensive exercise even if the incursion seems minor. The demands on staff during the actual disaster can be great, causing stress and throwing everyone off-balance but the recovery can be worse as the adrenalin subsides and the reality of cleaning up and assessing and repairing the damage is faced. Finally, there is the financial impact of the disaster. Funds designated for other purposes are redirected and budgets are strained, which is especially difficult for many institutions living with tight or diminishing incomes and rising expenditure.

This article will examine small-scale water disasters and, using case studies, show how easily such emergencies occur, what might have been done to mitigate or even prevent them, and how the disaster was handled when the water started to flow. But the disaster is not over when the water stops, for it is then that the real work of recovery begins and, in the days and weeks that follow, the affected institution must have a plan in place to make that recovery efficient, fast, and as complete as possible, so that the needs of all the stakeholders are addressed.

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