Interview with the Author: Mary Grace Flaherty on Disaster Planning for Libraries

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

February 01, 2022

Mary Grace Flaherty, PhD, MLS, MS, AHIP is Professor Emeritus in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently wrote The Disaster Planning Handbook for Libraries. My interview with her about the book is below.

Lauren: Will you briefly summarize your book The Disaster Planning Handbook for Libraries?

Mary Grace: The Handbook is comprised of seven chapters. It starts with a brief history of disaster response in the US, and the role libraries can play in disaster preparedness, planning, and recovery. Natural and human-made disasters are addressed, including interviews with library workers who have been through a major disaster. There are also chapters that consider physical facilities and archives and special collections. The book has templates and pointers for tools throughout to help make disaster preparedness a seamless process. 

Lauren: What sparked your interest in disaster planning?

Mary Grace: When I was an MLS student many years ago, one of my field experience projects was to craft a disaster plan for a local history archive in Dorchester, Massachusetts. I hadn’t really considered the vulnerability of collections and communities up until that time, and learned that even a minimal plan can save time, energy, physical assets, and empower staff. When I was working as a public library director decades later, our small village was inundated, and we experienced record flooding. That first-hand experience taught me the power of preparedness, and the vital role libraries can play during and after disaster events. 

Lauren: Why do you think now is a good time for librarians to consider disaster planning?

Mary Grace: Communities everywhere are experiencing more disaster events, and as institutions that fulfill an “essential community function” (FEMA, 2019), libraries have an important role to play in disaster preparedness and education. There are so many readily available tools to assist with planning (see for instance ready.gov), every library should have some type of disaster plan.

Federal Emergency Management Agency. 2019. “Stafford Act, as Amended, and related authorities.” FEMA P-592, www.fema.gov/sites/default/files/2020-03/stafford-act_2019.pdf  

Lauren: Does the increase in digital content make the disaster planning process more challenging? If so, how? If not, why? 

Mary Grace: That’s a great question. Now there are more types of materials to provide access to, and to safeguard. On some level, I think it may make it easier. That is, if your content is digitized and that’s the way your users access it, the physical artifact may not be as important to salvage or save (depending of course on what that artifact may be). In addition, if your library is out of commission or closed for an extended period of time (as we’ve seen during the pandemic), making materials available digitally is a way to continue to serve and support your users. However, if there’s complete devastation to connectivity (as we’ve recently seen with the Tonga volcanic eruption), or if your library users are located in an area with limited digital access, reliance on digital content can be problematic.  

Lauren: What recommendations do you have for librarians to stay current with disaster planning strategies?

Mary Grace: Reach out to your community and your library users to learn their concerns: what are the most likely risks for your organization? Pay attention to local, regional, national, and international news and weather reports. Engage with other professionals, attend workshops and conferences, peruse professional library literature, and become active in your professional library organizations.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent speaker on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her professional interests include information literacy, educational technology, library and information science education, teacher identity, and academic development. Please read Lauren’s other posts about skills for special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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