Special Librarians Should Plan for the Unexpected

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD

July 07, 2020

Disaster Response Planning is not a “one and done” project, it’s a continually evolving plan to consider what you and your institution will do when there is an unexpected disaster. This year most of us have discovered that disasters come in many shapes, sizes, and types. 

The current COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. This public health crisis affected not only our hospitals and medical services, but our cultural institutions, libraries, archives, and historical societies. Government orders to “shelter in place,” that is, at home, upset our plans including disaster response plans. 

How is this pandemic and our responses different from “usual” or “routine” disasters? We weren’t expecting a disaster without a natural disaster or a water event turning us out of our buildings. Many of us never planned for a disaster that would force us to work from home, to shift our datacenters to the cloud via VPN access, and to keep us working at home for months at a time, possibly for a year or more.

COVID-19 and our response to physically distance ourselves from one another was and continues to be a long, drawn out disaster recovery with an even longer business resumption process. As many of us plan to resume some type of in-person, in-building working activities, it’s time to write a disaster response plan that incorporates what we’ve learned and compensates for the unknowns and their associated potential problems.

Developing plans for the unexpected disaster

As you discuss a disaster response plan:

  • Think about how your organization functions, consider the types of problems you typically encounter, and how you deal with chronic issues like water leaks, fluctuating Wi-Fi and internet connections, and even unreliable staff. 
  • Consider how members of your staff and administration react in a crisis or to problematic patron. How do they solve the issues at hand, on-the-fly? What are their personalities like? Who is a take-charge person and who awaits instruction?
  • Identify how your organization adapted what you do as a matter of routine and what you did during this emergency situation. The perfect example of this is working from home when information centers and libraries don’t usually operate that way.

Write or revise your newest iteration of a disaster response plan by leveraging what is already written, what was already decided, and then look at what others are doing. Document what you and others implemented since mid-March (2020). Write your Plan NOW, keep it fluid, keep writing and revising without getting specific.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. 

Create policies that are broad enough to be adapted to changing is important. Start with broad policies and procedures that are adaptable depending upon the situation. Don’t get too specific or your organization won’t be flexible and adaptable.

There are three major types of policies to consider, those that affect staff, those for buildings, and delivery of services & content. Here are some examples: 

When considering staff: Time off includes sick leave, family medical leave (FMLA), personal time off (PTO), bereavement and long-term leave for injury or major illness. These policies affect every staff member. Document how you adapted these policies for long-term closure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As pertains to the building: Closure for inclement weather – whether you close early or close for the day, this policy affects the staff and access to the building. In our present long-term crisis, we closed our facilities to everyone. Finally, we are opening them to staff. One day, the buildings and enclosed materials will be available for visiting patrons. Collect e-mails and press releases that announced closures, changes to services, and access to resources, physical and digital.

For example, how do you close for a blizzard which affects your local staff and the building? How do you modify this policy for staff who live farther away, say on the other side of the mountain or valley? What if they have a blizzard which restricts or is hazardous to travel? What is your leave policy then? Do you permit working for home rather than requiring PTO? If you’ve modified this policy for the COVID-19 pandemic, stay at home orders, document and adapt it as needed.

For access to resources: Work from home policies affect staff and public access to content. Evaluate the efficacy of remote access to content policies forced upon your institution during the current pandemic. Document the policies and procedures you created on the fly so you can pull them out again during the next crisis.

Work-from-home and telework policies were forced upon many information professionals; these have definitely morphed into long-term solutions. As a result, your institution may adopt job sharing to help staff who must deal with paucity of child care during the summer due to curtailed and eliminated summer programs, activities, and day care. 

Proactive planning enhances recovery measures on our own terms

It’s essential to have some broad policies in place before a crisis, procedures that are carefully thought out and arranged on an “as needed” basis. Publicize them with your staff and your stakeholders. 

For example, for a traditional disaster response plan you may have listed your institution with a disaster response company so they will come to help dry out your building during a flood or major water leak. In addition, you have service contracts and maintenance contracts in place for computers, telecommunications, internet access, and office equipment and mechanical equipment (heating, cooling, and water) in the building. Review the agreements, update as needed.

Another part of your disaster response plan involves the data and computer center. They have plans and procedures to move data and services to temporary locations and backup servers. These expensive services are seldom used but imperative during a disaster. Issues to consider are where data is stored remotely and how is it accessed? Is there sufficient and appropriate hardware and software to access servers and all the associated data? This is especially important when working from a remote location or from home offices.

Allocate work assignments to staff for “other duties as assigned,” that pesky, essential phrase for all job descriptions, especially for employees in unions should be in ALL job descriptions.

Confirm your organization is adequately insured for unemployment, long-term closure, and temporary staffing and office space.

Document, document, document

Put together a bare bones disaster response and recovery plan even if it is only a brief list that fits on a 3×5 card. In fact, the briefer the better. 

Plan for small disasters; those that affect the building and core staff only and work your way out to a wide-area, over-all disaster that affects the city, county, or state. It’s mind-numbing to consider wide-area disasters, but we know from our current experience, that we can scale up local plans and operations from limited to overwhelming. Stay calm. Use policies and procedures already in place and document what you decide “on the fly.” 

Put together a response team to step up and respond to the crisis. The team should consist of persons from administration, staff, and maintenance. Best to keep the director off the list so the director can deal with Boards, Presidents, and other stakeholders.

Utilize your Public Relations Officer. If you don’t have one, designate ONE spokesperson for the organization to speak with the media and the press, and to post information on your website and social media sites.

“External” players are the Director, Treasurer, and Development / Fundraiser. These people work with and coordinate with the disaster team leader. Don’t forget alternates for each position.

Set up some basic decision trees: what gets saved, where to send staff, and which services are essential for the smooth running of your institution.

Create a current phone / texting list so you can contact everyone and anyone in your organization. Keep it current. Use it appropriately. Create an e-mail list for the entire staff to enhance current awareness and eliminate rumors.

Secure data, computers, and digital resources. Is the VPN robust enough to handle all the traffic from your staff and flexible enough for remote access by patrons?

Don’t forget cross-training. It’s key for keeping services flowing to your client base.

Continuity of -service can be seamless if pre-planned 

Continuity of services when “pre-planned” means you have procedures in place to “flip the switch,” to shift from local to remote access for reference services and services to clients. You’ll be able to shift from physical to digital location without a major time lag.

Continuity of services (business continuity to risk managers and insurance agents) means the steady flow of operations, shifting from one means to another seamlessly, or without too many hitches. Think about how you shifted the online catalog from reserves on physical materials (books, audiobooks and DVDs) to only e-resources. Consider how you permitted access to digital reference materials from local, in-house authentication to remote authentication (from having to be on the premises using in-house Wi-Fi to using library cards through the digital hub).

Summing it up

Disaster response plans are key to operating in crisis mode. Document current operations and decisions made during this disaster. Identify policies that worked and build them into your revised disaster response plan. 

Keep policies generic so they remain flexible and adaptable for the next disaster and the one after that.

Resources and examples for developing Disaster Response Plans

Places to go for policies, procedures, and plans: 

American Library Association (ALA) http://www.ala.org has tons of policies and books that contain policies; for plans, 

Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) http://www.nedcc.org has a disaster response plan that’s really intense and specific. Take what you need. Be generic. 

Check out Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA) https://www.arma.org/, Special Library Association (SLA) https://www.sla.org/, Consult local Public Safety, EMA plans, and Public Health recommendations for examples and generic advice.

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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