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J Med Libr Assoc. 2010 July; 98(3): 259–261.
PMCID: PMC2901008

Disaster planning in a health sciences library: a grant-funded approach

Felicia Yeh, MLIS
Assistant Director for Collections Management ; ude.cs.demcsu@heY.aicileF
Karen D McMullen, MLIS
Head of Access Services ; ude.cs.demcsu@nelluMcM.neraK
Laura T Kane, MLIS, AHIP


Recent events, such as the outbreak of H1N1 influenza and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, have raised awareness of the need for disaster preparedness and service continuity. During the last few years, disaster planning resources have become readily available. However, the reality is that many health sciences libraries still do not have comprehensive disaster plans in place. Because the preparation and execution of a disaster plan is labor intensive and time consuming, the writing of a comprehensive disaster plan is often relegated to the “back burner.”

This was the case at the University of South Carolina (USC) School of Medicine (SOM) Library, until recently. The SOM Library is a relatively small operation with 15 staff members serving approximately 530 medical and graduate students and more than 250 faculty. Faculty, staff, and students have 24/7 access privileges. The library has been fortunate to have never experienced a significant disaster; however, South Carolina is vulnerable to natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes. In addition, collections and services are at risk for damage from roof leaks, pest infestations, mold blooms, theft, fire, burst pipes, security breakdowns, and accumulation of dust and dirt.

Having determined the need for a disaster plan, library faculty examined disaster planning resources and brainstormed possible approaches. It was decided that outside guidance from experts would be beneficial because no single staff member boasted significant disaster planning experience. This would require funds that simply were not available. Hence, library faculty sought out grant opportunities and were awarded a Preservation Assistance Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the amount of $4,500. The grant allowed the SOM Library to hire 2 consultants to aid in developing a comprehensive disaster plan and to purchase emergency supplies.


A six-member disaster plan task force was appointed by the library director to plan and carry out activities for the disaster plan project. The task force included three department heads (information services, collections management, and education/outreach), two librarians, and one staff member. The group met at least once a month and provided updates on the project at monthly library staff meetings.

The consultants (well-respected archivists and experts in conservation, disaster preparedness, and recovery) presented an overview of the disaster planning process and helped develop a project plan. Before any portion of the plan could be written, several data-gathering and decision-making tasks needed to be completed. The first was a risk assessment exercise. This involved determining the level of risk to the library building and collections caused by geographic or climatic hazards, as well as man-made disasters. The task force worked closely with the SOM's facilities management staff, the people responsible for building maintenance. Using a scale of one to ten (where ten is highest risk), each potential hazard was rated for probability and criticality. This process helped identify the “high-risk” disasters—such as floods, tornadoes, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) failure—which would need to be addressed in the final disaster plan.

Conducting a building survey was the next task. This proved challenging because the library staff had limited knowledge in areas such as building structure, electrical systems, HVAC units, and so on. Working closely with the consultants and facilities management, the task force completed the survey and identified risks and vulnerabilities. Many of these were resolved later. For example, housekeeping procedures were improved, an evacuation chart was updated and posted, fire hazards were eliminated, and so on. Additional security measures were implemented, such as the installation of four panic buttons for library patrons and staff to use, the installation of additional lighting to enhance personal safety, and the installation of a web-based surveillance system. More importantly, the task force later used the results of the library building survey to develop specific procedures in the disaster plan to prevent and mitigate possible damages.

Collection priorities and continuity of services were the issues tackled next. The consultants stressed that identifying collection priorities was vital to ensure the continuity of services in the event of a disaster. Division heads were responsible for identifying salvage priorities for their divisions. All collections—including library materials, personnel records, and departmental documents—were given priority rankings. These salvage priorities, and the procedures for salvage, were later outlined in detail in the comprehensive disaster plan.

One of the most important steps in disaster planning is to determine ways in which everyday library services may resume immediately after a disaster. The task force looked in detail at the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM) Emergency Preparedness & Response Plan for Network Members, which encourages libraries to partner with a back-up library and to develop a memorandum of understanding (MOU), specifying services that would be provided by the back-up library in the event of a disaster [1]. The SOM Library already had in place an MOU with the Robert B. Greenblatt Library at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) in Augusta (approximately ninety miles away from Columbia). The MOU states that each library agrees to provide reciprocal services to the other during or after a disaster. This scenario would be activated in the event that the SOM Library resources would be completely inaccessible either on site or online, most likely as a result of a natural disaster.

When faced with the recent threats of an influenza pandemic, the task force realized that the MOU with MCG was not sufficient to cover situations in which staff cannot report to the office but might still feasibly work from remote sites. Using a university-developed template, guidelines for continuing key services remotely were established. The key services included Ask-A-Librarian reference, access to electronic resources, some level of circulation, library administration, and some level of interlibrary loan. Using as an example the recently published collaboration between two health sciences libraries at the University of Virginia and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the SOM Library contacted USC's main campus library to begin negotiating an interlibrary loan partnership that would go into effect during a pandemic or other types of disasters [2].


The first actual document created by the task force was an emergency telephone tree. Staff contact telephone numbers and detailed instructions were added to the library's existing organizational chart. Multiple copies were distributed to every staff member, with instructions to keep it at one's desk and another in one's car or home. Next, a customized, color-coded “Emergency Procedures Flip Chart” was created using a template developed by the Southeastern Museums Conference and provided by the consultants. Step-by-step immediate response to all types of emergencies and disasters were included in the flip chart. Copies were distributed to all staff and placed in strategic public services areas.

At the suggestion of the consultants, emergency supplies were purchased (using grant funds) and placed in three large waterproof containers, each labeled with a list of contents. Items in the “emergency supply bins” varied from face masks, rubber boots, and plastic gloves to flashlights, batteries, weather radios, and walkie-talkies. Two of the bins were stored on separate floors of the library building, while the third was taken to the facilities management department for storage. This ensures the accessibility of at least one of the supply bins should the library be completely inaccessible.

The dPlan, an online disaster-planning tool created by Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), was utilized initially to develop the comprehensive plan [3]. After a brief trial, however, it was determined that portions were not applicable and editing the template was time consuming. A “homegrown” outline was developed using the dPlan as a general guide. Task force members were assigned different sections. It took upwards of six months to compile the comprehensive plan. Copies were distributed to all staff members with instructions to store it in their vehicles or other remote locations. All staff members were required to read the plan in detail.

The final template used by the task force was the Pocket Response Plan (PReP), developed by the Council of State Archivists [4]. The resulting document was one double-sided page, folded into the size of a credit card and slipped into a water-resistant envelope. The PReP contains essential information needed by staff in case of a disaster, including emergency telephone numbers, institutional contacts, sources for outside help, insurance information, information technology details, the continuity of service plan, salvage priorities, a response checklist, assessment guidelines, and salvage procedures. Staff members were given copies to keep in their wallets.


Within the eighteen-month grant period, four staff training sessions were held: “Personal Safety” conducted by staff from the university's police department, “Fire Safety” conducted by staff from the university's fire department, “Hurricane Preparedness” conducted by the consultants, and a hands-on mock disaster session conducted by the consultants. The training ensured the participation of the entire library staff in the disaster planning process.

The hands-on mock disaster was a simulated flood situation with water-damaged materials. This training helped staff determine how best they could work as a team during an emergency, and it allowed the task force to test components of the plan. Numerous practical changes were made to the plan once flaws were determined by the mock disaster. For example, there was quite a bit of confusion regarding the various salvage responsibilities assigned to each person because these roles were not clearly defined in the plan. It was also clear that those staff members who had read the plan in depth were the most helpful during the mock disaster.

The consultants stressed the importance of keeping the plan up-to-date. The disaster plan will be revised twice per year by a rotating team of staff members appointed by the library director. Fire and evacuation drills will be held on a regular basis to ensure that staff remain familiar with proper procedures and actions according to the plan.


Though time consuming, the disaster planning project was completed due in large part to the requirements of the grant period. Had there not been a deadline, the project might well have been postponed. Expert advice from the consultants and colleagues was invaluable, as were websites from organizations such as the NEDCC <> and NN/LM <>.

Communication among all involved parties, including staff and several units in the university and the SOM, was critical to ensure the effectiveness of the process. Keeping staff involved and assigning roles in the event of a disaster helped each person to “buy into” the project. From the start, the project had complete support from the library director, the facilities management department, and even the office of the dean. When the plan was publicized to the school of medicine via the library's newsletter, website, and emails, several other departments, including the office of the dean, began producing similar documents using the task force's templates.

Mistakes were made and flaws were discovered, but these were corrected. The result was a plan that meets three important requirements of an effective disaster plan: it is comprehensive, simple, and flexible [5].


The SOM Library's approach to creating a disaster plan by pursuing a grant and enlisting the help of experts was successful. The completion of the comprehensive disaster plan reduces potential risks to patrons and personnel, minimizes damage to collections, and provides a framework for the continuation of library services in the event of a disaster.


1. National Network of Libraries of Medicine. NN/LM emergency procedures & response plan for network members [Internet] Bethesda, MD: The Network; Jan 2008 [cited 27 Apr 2009]. <>.
2. Norton M.J, Wilson D.T, Yowell S.S. Partnering to promote service continuity in the event of an emergency: a successful collaboration between two interlibrary loan departments. J Med Libr Assoc. 2009 Apr;97(2):131–4. doi: 10.3163/1536-5050.97.2.010. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
3. Northeast Document Conservation Center. dPlan: the online disaster planning tool for cultural and civic institutions [Internet] The Center; 2006 [cited 27 Apr 2009]. <>.
4. Council of State Archivists. Pocket response plan (PrEP) [Internet] The Council; Sep 2007 [cited 8 Dec 2009]. <>.
5. Patkus B.L, Motylewski K. Disaster planning technical leaflet [Internet] Northeast Document Conservation Center; 2007 [cited 27 Feb2009]. <>.

Articles from Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA are provided here courtesy of Medical Library Association