Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight

Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight

Gerald Chaudron (University of Memphis, Memphis, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJDREM.2018010104
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Libraries face many kinds of emergency, but planning for every contingency is a huge challenge. Overwhelmed with books and articles that focus mainly on the catastrophic events, librarians tend to place more emphasis on managing the risk of hurricanes and floods leaving them underprepared for the more mundane and common emergencies, like burst pipes and leaky roofs. This article uses two case studies of small water emergencies to examine how each library managed those emergencies and what lessons were learned. They show that while both incidents were water-related, they were very different in terms of source, size, impact, recovery time, and frequency. Libraries should be planning for small disasters first, and then scaling up preparation to account for the larger events, rather than the reverse, since the smaller events are much more common and often as challenging to the maintenance of services.
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The title of this article was inspired by a book of poetry about life’s emotional disasters (Levine, J.B., 2014) but it also speaks to the reality of disaster planning concerning small water-related emergencies. Only when one has survived any emergency can preparations be made to cope with the next one. This is no less true for libraries that have suffered burst pipes or leaking roofs as for those that were flooded by storm surges after hurricanes. The former are usually reported with headlines that are matter-of-fact rather than eye-catching because they are not considered front-page news by the media: “Cazenovia Library soaked by leaky roof, closes for repairs”, “Still drying out after a leak, Tustin Library will remain closed for weeks”, “Leaking roof leads to mold at Eudora Welty Library”, “Norwalk’s main library closed by pipe burst.” An internet search for reports of water damage to libraries in 2016-2018 found 39 news stories about public, school and academic libraries affected by such an event. Since the exercise was not exhaustive, it is likely this number is actually higher. What is interesting about the result as far as emergency planning is concerned is that none of the events were catastrophic. In other words, the source of the water was not a hurricane, flooding river or tsunami, the major disasters much of the literature focuses on when discussing how libraries should prepare for water emergencies. Instead the culprits are leaking roofs, burst pipes and malfunctioning sprinklers; small water emergencies that nevertheless have a significant impact on libraries across the country.

Librarians face a number of challenges in trying to ensure their collections remain intact and available for use. Much of the material they manage is made of paper and other natural products that are vulnerable to damage from environmental factors such as humidity, heat, light, mold and pests that can be exacerbated by manmade hazards including pollution and deliberate acts of destruction. While libraries continue to hold analog formats, they are moving increasingly to digital formats that 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 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 designed to respond to the destruction wrought by a 100-year flood but give little assistance to coping with an overflowing toilet. The problem is, as Enrico Quarantelli points out, there is often little correlation between risk assessment and disaster planning, and whether a disaster is managed well (Quarantelli, 1988, p. 374). This is because a risk is a potentiality not an actuality, that few risks are realized and fewer still necessitate an immediate response (Quarantelli, 1998, pp. 256-257). This article suggests that libraries and library scientists tend to overlook the risk posed by the more mundane sources of water damage as they focus on the disastrous ones. The consequence is that small water emergencies are more frequent than they should be and have a greater impact as a result.

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