Preparing Your Documents for Disaster

Written for Unlimited Priorities and DCLnews Blog.

DCL guest columnist Marydee Ojala describes how digitizing your documents can pay off in the event of a natural disaster or other catastrophe. She also gives some useful tips on developing a disaster preparedness plan that will keep your documents and other critical data safe—even in extreme situations.

You Can’t Hope for the Best If You Don’t Plan for the Worst

On August 4, 2009, a flash flood hit the Louisville Free Public Library in Kentucky, doing some $5 million in damage. Of course I heard of this via Twitter—a sign of the times. My friend Greg Schwartz, Library Systems Manager (, tweeted about the flood as it was happening. His tweets about 6 feet of water in the server room were rapidly picked up by influential bloggers and word spread quickly throughout Twitter land and the blogosphere. The flood destroyed books, processing equipment, bookmobiles, and some personal automobiles, along with the servers, among other things. Greg’s photo of the devastation (seen below) is at

Damage photo shared on Twitter by @gregschwartz

Damage photo shared on Twitter by @gregschwartz

Do you believe disasters only occur to others? When you read about content being destroyed or severely damaged do you think: “Sure, but it can’t happen here, not to me! My organization has never experienced floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, or other disasters. Therefore, we never will.”

Obviously, digitizing old and rare materials is an excellent preservation tool, an antidote to destruction—but taking precautions to keep the original materials safe is important as well.
Sometimes people believe that lightning doesn’t strike twice; in the case of Louisville, there had been one other flash flood, but it was in 1937. Who thought it could happen again?

They may be irrational, but these thoughts are more common than most of us care to admit.

On the other hand, if you haven’t yet embarked on a digitization project, you need to ensure that the materials you intend to convert remain viable and in a condition that allows digitization to proceed. Water-damaged paper may be possible to digitize, but it’s probably going to cost more and the quality of the resulting digital document may not be as high as you’d like.

By their very nature, disasters are unpredictable. When flash floods hit the University of Hawaii, Manoa, campus in October, 2004, the library’s basement—home to Hawaiian government documents and rare maps, along with some faculty offices and the library file servers—quickly filled with water. Initially thought to be destroyed, many of the unique documents and maps were salvaged through a combination of freezing and dehumidifying. However, professors who had not taken care to back up their data on their hard drives lost, in some cases, decades of research.

The David Sarnoff Library in Princeton, New Jersey was flooded in 2007 when a heavy storm hit. The library stored archival materials, including 600 cubic feet of lab notebooks, technical reports, manuals, and manuscripts in boxes in the basement. Executive Director Alexander B. Magoun admitted he never expected to see 20 inches of water waterlog the basement materials.

There are success stories, however. When the National Archives flooded in June 2006, the building sustained water damage, but no records were harmed. This may have had something to do with the fact that the National Archives, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress, and National Park Service, publishes “A Primer on Disaster Preparedness, Management and Response: Paper-Based Materials” on its web site. Presumably, they paid attention to their own advice—and it seems to have paid off.

Of course, natural disasters are not limited to floods and storms. In Cologne, Germany, the archives building collapsed in March 2009, because of underground construction on the local subway tunnel. Unfortunately, the archives had no disaster plan in place, and documents dating back 1,000 years were not only mangled and torn, but waterlogged from ground water at the site. First feared to be a complete loss, later estimates are that 85% of the collection has been recovered, albeit in far-from-pristine condition. It will take years to piece together the archive document fragments, using technology initially developed to recreate East Germany’s Stasi files.

Fire poses threats to archives as well. In 2007, the Georgetown branch of the Washington D.C. public library burned, destroying or severely damaging the cultural heritage stored there, which included oil paintings, maps, photos, and documents. The library had no sprinkler system because management thought there would be more damage from the water than from a fire. In light of what happened, whether or not that was a correct decision is debatable.

When the Los Angeles Central Library burned in April 1986, I remember staff telling me that the building’s architecture helped fan the flames and that the structure was in violation of several parts of the city’s fire code. Ruled arson, the fire destroyed about 20% of the collection. Some of the rare books and manuscripts, such as a 1757 manuscript about California and a 1695 Shakespeare folio, were kept in a fireproof vault in the basement that was untouched. But the room housing a rare collection of U.S. patents dating back to 1790, which took 15 years and over $250,000 to compile was gutted, as was the card file that provided a unique subject index to the library’s fiction collection. This struck home; before it disappeared in the fire, I used those cards to research opinions in fiction toward bankers and business executives.

Disaster prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery are hardly new topics. But I am struck by how frequently information professionals look at their colleagues’ predicaments and comment on the lack of preparedness within their own organizations. Often, even those with a plan haven’t updated it to accommodate the necessities of modern disaster preparedness.

A common thread in disaster preparedness is having a written plan. No need to reinvent the wheel: Several professional organizations put their sample disaster preparedness and recovery plans on the Web. The Society of American Archivists has a list of ideas to raise awareness of disaster readiness. Heritage Preservation: The National Institute for Conservation presents a comprehensive set of links to disaster preparedness resources on its web site. At the Texas State Library and Archives site, you’ll find a five-page template for disaster recovery, the South Central Kansas Library System put its comprehensive manual online, and the Lyrasis consortium provides links to sample plans.

Looking at these resources, several commonalities emerge:

  • Most important is not only to have a plan but also to remind people it’s there. Writing the plan is the beginning not the end. Run some drills. Test the plan. Update it on a regular basis. Even the National Archives’ plan is dated 1993. Emerging technologies can affect disaster plans.
  • Keep a list of individuals and agencies to be notified in case of a disaster. It should include names, phone numbers (landline and mobile), and email addresses. Given today’s social networking environment, you may have people on your contact list who are best reached by direct messaging them via Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and the like. Understand that word about your situation will surface on social networking sites, particularly Twitter.
  • Don’t store the list only on your organization’s computers—remember those drowned servers in basements? The same holds true for your master database of preserved materials.
  • People come first. Regardless of the historical importance or monetary value of your collection, risking people’s lives to protect it should not be required.
  • Think about the implications of where you store your collection. Basements are prone to flooding, even when there hasn’t been a flood in decades. If you must store items in basements, at least don’t put them on the floor. Think about the implications of sprinkler systems. Ask yourself which might do the most damage: smoke and scorching from fire or water from the sprinklers?
  • Back up computer data and store the backups in a different geographic area from the originals. Digitize as many unique and rare items as possible.
  • What about insurance? This may be a decision made by a parent organization over which you have little control. But consider this: Will you need insurance money to restore damaged materials? Think about the implications of total loss. Would insurance money compensate for not having valuable historic or business mission-critical items?

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned is to remove the “it can’t happen here” mentality from your organization. No one expects to lose historical collections to natural disasters. Preserving materials through digitization is a laudable endeavor, but shouldn’t end up replacing valuable source materials needlessly destroyed in natural disasters.



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