Phasing Back into the Physical Special Library Workplace

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

May 12, 2020

Someday, sooner or later, we’ll be faced with returning to the physical work place. This is the final phase of Disaster Response and Recovery Planning.

Disaster Response, and the planning that goes with it, is not new; it’s been around for decades. We usually experience it on a small scale, although there have been some wide-area disasters brought about by weather and terrorism including Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and even the great library fires—the Los Angeles Public Library being one of the most devastating in the past 50 years—the bombing in Oklahoma City, and 9/11.

After Disaster Response comes Recovery and Resumption, the final phases of a plan where we work to restore operations.

We’re starting to hear about opening businesses and government agencies, about loosening the restrictions on physical interactions. Now’s the time to start planning how our special libraries will reopen.

Returning should not be as chaotic as was sending everyone home to work remotely. Our best option is to phase into our workplaces and institutions, providing a mix of remote and on-site presence and services. 

Resuming services is a challenge. It will take time and lots of positive energy. The Recovery and Resumption phase of this disaster is going to be the state of operations for a long time, for months, if not as a permanent change.

Prioritizing Operations

Think about Recovery as a logistical puzzle, a complex project management operation where supplies and services need to be lined up for the organization before moving back to headquarters. Disaster Recovery and Resumption of services consists of many steps and each requires certain factors be in place before the next step can begin. The more you plan for recovery, the more flexible the steps to get there, the more successful your organization will be.

An integral part of disaster planning is prioritizing essential operations and services, including delivery of information. In an ideal world, each organization has a disaster response plan which includes a list of key services and information about external factors that affect service and department functionality. In other words, which organizational operations need to be in place before the information center and services can resume in the corporate office. Once most of the functional criteria are met, those internal operations can resume.  Some issues to consider concerning the physical safety of staff are:

  • Does the physical building need to be cleaned and sterilized first including every piece of hardware, every chair and desk? 
  • Who is responsible for cleaning operations and where is the Information Center in the schedule?
  • Could the staff of the Information Center perform this cleaning operation, with appropriate precautions, and resume in-house operations more quickly? 

Since most information centers are running remotely and have been empty for more than a month, cleaning may be lower on the “to do” list.

Our focus should revolve around the smooth transfer of information center operations into physical buildings.

Primary services and needs

Reopening brick and mortar operations is contingent upon state mandates for phasing back to work that revolve around this pandemic. Additional factors such as child-care, loosening of physical distancing, and age-specific criteria need to be considered. Identifying primary services and the personnel to perform operations is key to a smooth recovery—as is active and aggressive marketing to information clients and researchers of resumption of physical services.

What are the primary services offered by the information center? By now, we’ve been offering many services through virtual collections, digital resources, and online requests. Most information professionals are working from their homes fielding queries, performing data retrieval and delivery through various digital channels. 

Consider which services can continue to be offered remotely. Will you continue to handle queries via e-mail and synchronous chat? Will you rotate staffing to limit physical exposure and accommodate needs such as child-care?

Delivery of physical materials and resources has been suspended until the physical building is open and operational. Once buildings are reopened, materials will be returned and reserves pulled for pick up by library patrons. How will your organization handle this labor-intensive operation? Will you stagger or delay retrieval of requests?

As you consider resuming visible staffing of the information center, museum, historical society, archive or library, which services are needed? Will staff have access to the physical collections or just digital resources which are already available to the public and internal clients? What criteria must be in place before the physical collections and resources are available? 

Throughout this crisis, virtual meetings and training became the norm. Consider whether virtual meetings will continue. Was this an efficient use of staff time? Perhaps you’ll decide to continue with virtual meetings, with phased in physical meetings on an as-needed basis.

Marketing campaign

A robust marketing campaign is essential as your special library or archives begins to phase in physical, on-site operations. Just as your organization sent out numerous emails informing its clients about closures, remote access, and digital services, you’ll need to do the reverse and identify which services are physically available and on what schedule.

Marketing should identify:

  • Services that are available and what’s being discontinued.
  • Services that are physically available and where.
  • Services that are available through remote access.
  • Digital resources and access methods.
  • Discontinuation of remote access for licensed or restricted resources.

Think about staggering operations and available services over a month or two to ease bottlenecks in operations.

Disaster Response Plan Editing

As you plan Disaster Recovery and Resumption of services, it’s time to revise your Disaster Response Plan. Don’t have one? Now’s the time to write one using one of the many guidebooks and programs available. 

Discuss what worked smoothly and what didn’t. Identify the weaknesses in your existing plan and incorporate what worked more efficiently. Consider how technology aided in swift resumption of reference and information services, focusing on strengthening those operations.

As you edit your plan:

  • Evaluate disaster response and recovery or resumption of operations
  • Document evacuation and remote working phase. 
  • Document new routines and changes to operations and services
  • Create protocols and procedures for the next disaster. 
  • Revise the disaster response plan accordingly, keeping in mind most disasters continue to be localized.

Collecting documentation of how the organization responded to this wide area disaster is essential. It will aid in revising your disaster response plan and thinking about future modifications in operations. Documentation of the disaster, initiatives, and the evolution of the information center is librarian’s or archivist’s dream. The librarian (or archivist) will collect contemporary documentation of the disaster, results of changes and effects to the organization, and the evolution of the institution. Keeping all documentation, procedures, and emails provides excellent examples for responding to the next disaster.

Summing it up

  • Prioritize which services will be available in person or physically, and which will continue to be offered offsite or online. 
  • Stage or stagger resumption of operations after a disaster. 
  • Consider which ad hoc, remote services worked efficiently and incorporate them into your newly resumed operations.

A disaster is an opportunity to build a stronger organization, streamline operations, and incorporate new routines. Look to and build upon the successes. 

Looking for guidelines for putting your Disaster Response Plan into a written form? Here are two of the many resources you can consult on the topic, and an article that looks at past disasters.

D-Plan at the Northeast Document Conservation Center

Kahn, Miriam B. Disaster Response and Planning for Libraries. Third Edition (Chicago: ALA, 2012) 978-0-8389-1151-8

Karen Hao, “What past disasters can teach us about how to deal with covid-19” MIT Technology Review (April 15, 2020)

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

Miriam B. Kahn, MLS, PhD provides education and consulting for libraries, archives, corporations, and individuals. See Miriam’s pieces for Lucidea covering library technology and skills and strategies for special librarians. Refresh your knowledge of Lucidea’s flagship ILS, SydneyEnterprise, here. 


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