Disaster Planning for Libraries and Library Users: Making a Difference During Difficult Times

By Suzanne Davis, Children’s Librarian, East Bonner County Library – Sandpoint Branch

Disasters and emergencies can have a variety of detrimental impacts on individuals, families, and communities. In addition to injury, illness, or death, impacts can include reduced access to primary such as food and safe drinking water, loss of shelter, and damaged infrastructure and personal property. Some disasters like blizzards and hurricanes can be forecasted, but others like chemical spills, fires, and terrorist attacks occur with little or no warning.  Right now, its Coronavirus possibly threatening communities and the libraries that serve them.

A formal disaster plan can help communities, their organizations and families think, prepare, and more thoughtfully respond to disasters. Libraries, including Children’s departments, have an important role in disaster preparedness and response.

Libraries should create formal disaster plans.

In her column, Libraries and Natural Disasters, A. M. Prestamo references a 2005 report showing only 22% of libraries have formal disaster plans in place3. Written disaster/emergency preparedness plans are important and should take into account all four steps in the disaster management cycle: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Mitigation focuses on maintaining and updating the physical library and computer systems and resolving possible hazards in a timely fashion. This includes monitoring periodic inspections of the fire alarm, smoke detector, security system, and HVAC units and identifying needed maintenance through weekly cleaning. With regard to computer systems, libraries can reduce system vulnerabilities by building in automatic system backups and staying on top of updates.

Preparedness includes identifying evacuation routes, maintaining first aid and emergency kits for earthquakes, and compiling and keeping current lists of contacts for staff, emergency personnel, recovery personnel, and media and communications. The lists should include contacts for health district offices, county and state emergency management offices, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Preparedness includes forming consortial relationships to allow for library service during and after a disaster and identifying temporary locations for library collections. Preparing computer systems for disaster includes establishing off-site servers. Lastly, preparedness requires that staff be trained in emergency management to clarify procedures, and individual responsibilities, to reduce collection damage and recovery time and increase cost savings.

Response plans detail staff protocols during and immediately after emergencies and disasters. They could include detailed steps on what to announce over intercom systems and how to approach patrons to alert them of the disaster, who and when to call for emergency personnel, where to shelter during a tornado or earthquake, and what supplies to take to shelters or emergency meeting spots. Disaster response to computer viruses includes identifying threats and threatened computers, quarantining, cleaning, and preventing recurrences. Because libraries are committed to serving their communities, their disaster plan should consider leveraging social media to post disaster updates.

Recovery details how to effectively and quickly resume or continue to provide library services. Recovery plans should designate recovery teams and describe how to activate them to salvage priority collections and services. Recovery should again leverage social media to inform patrons of service changes and expansions.

Libraries can help community members prepare for and recover from disasters.

Many community members are not sufficiently prepared for disasters, and Prestamo states that disasters are most devastating to those with less economic and social capital3. A recent study of New York City (NYC) households found that while NYC residents were more prepared for disaster than families and individuals in other areas of the country, preparedness activities were concentrated in those who trusted local government and who had strong social bonds2. Vulnerable populations, including those with disabilities and/or low incomes, on the other hand, were less likely to trust local government or have social bonds. As such, they tended to engage in the fewest disaster preparedness activities2. A study by Kruger et. al. found that those with disabilities would like to be more prepared for disasters; however, because 55% of individuals with disabilities do not work and because a high percentage rely on family and public services for daily life, they are less likely to be prepared for disasters1. Unprepared individuals and families generally suffer more loss.

Libraries can help in a number of ways. First, libraries can offer disaster preparedness resources like presentations and classes on building emergency kits and developing family emergency plans. Links to online preparedness resources like Ready.gov’s comprehensive information on emergency planning are also helpful. Individual plans should include a description of the individuals and pets covered by the plan, how the family intends to receive emergency alerts, shelter plans, evacuation routes, family communication plans, a list of emergency kit items and where they are kept, and contacts for agencies that might help during a disaster. Those who are prepared recover more easily from disaster.

During or in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, libraries can concentrate on promoting vetted health information, FEMA applications, and disaster updates. Libraries can also leverage social media to highlight information on library policies, library status, and library events related to (and unrelated to) the disaster. Social media allows communication to be bilateral, which increases social cohesion. Another way libraries can support the development of social relationships is by offering healing programs. After the police murder of an African American man in Ferguson and the resulting anger resulted in riots and chaos, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library offered a “school of peace,” economic recovery programs for affected businesses, and emotional healing tool-kits for circulation4. While these programs helped the community heal, they also revealed the community’s need for disaster planning. At the same time, the increased social cohesion engendered by the program might result in individuals better preparing for future disasters.

A Role for Children’s Departments

There are several ways that children’s departments, specifically, can impact disaster planning and relief. First, in planning for disasters, children’s librarians can curate a collection of materials on helping children with readiness and on recovering from disasters. The American Library Association (ALA) has a book list entitled “Comforting Reads for Difficult Times.” The list covers a variety of events, from moving to adoption, but also includes a few titles focused on natural disasters and resilience, as well as resources for adults on how to talk to children during difficult times. Children’s librarians can invite firefighters and emergency personnel to teach children basic disaster responses such as crawling under smoke, building a personal disaster kit, calling 9-1-1, and having a family meeting spot. In the wake of a disaster, children’s librarians can collect books for giveaway, stock community little libraries, offer programs that encourage families to talk and write about their fears and hopes, offer school-type programs, and provide a variety of other programs that allow families to “take a break” from thinking about the disaster.

More Resources

There is a plethora of disaster planning resources available. ALA curates a collection of resources and training opportunities designed for libraries. Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) provides guidelines for resource-sharing in disaster planning and response. Ready.gov offers comprehensive information for individuals and organizations on preparing for specific types of disasters, building a disaster kit, including pet considerations in disaster planning, and special considerations for special populations such as seniors. They also offer resources for kids to learn about making a family plan and building a disaster kit. Many of FEMA’s resources link back to ready.gov, though they do offer some unique resources, as well.

American Library Association. (2017). Comforting reads for difficult times. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/alsc/sites/ala.org.alsc/files/content/compubs/booklists/comfortingreads/170523_ALSC_Booklist_ComfortingReads_FINAL_Pages.pdf

American Library Association. (2019, April 5). Library disaster preparedness & response: Disaster preparedness. Retrieved from http://libguides.ala.org/disaster/preparedness

FEMA. (n.d.). Emergency supply list. Retrieved from https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1390846764394-dc08e309debe561d866b05ac84daf1ee/checklist_2014.pdf

Ready. (2020, February 24). Retrieved from http://ready.gov and http://ready.gov/kids

Reference and User Services Association. (2017). Guidelines for resource-sharing response to disaster preparation and response. American Library Association. Retrieved from https://www.ala.org/rusa/sites/ala.org.rusa/files/content/resources/guidelines/GuidelinesDisasterPrepResponse2017.pdf

Zarrilli, Z. (2016). Essential first aid items you should have in your car. SureFire CPR. Retrieved from https://www.surefirecpr.com/essential-first-aid-items-car/

As disasters such as shootings, wildfire, and flooding become more frequent, it becomes increasingly important that libraries think through the types of disasters that might occur in their buildings or communities and create disaster plans to respond to those possibilities. Formal, annually reviewed, and practiced disaster response plans move libraries and library personnel from simply reacting to disaster to a more thoughtful and intentional response to disaster. In this way, more lives are saved, more services are retained, and more needed services are offered. Additionally, libraries can also play a significant proactive role in helping individuals and families learn about and create disaster plans and kits.


1Kruger, J., Hinton, C. F., Sinclair, L. B., & Silverman, B. (2018). Enhancing individual and community disaster preparedness: Individuals with disabilities and others with accesss and functional needs. Disability and Health Journal, 11(2), 170-173. https://doi.org/10.1016/.j.dhjo.2017.12.005

2Martins, V. N., Louis-Charles, H. M., Nigg, J., Kendra, J., & Sisco, S. (2018). Household disaster preparedness in New York City before Superstorm Sandy: Findings and recommendations. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, 15(4). Doi: 10.1515/jhsem-2017-0002

3Prestamo, A. M. (2018). Libraries and natural disasters. Journal of Library Administration, 58(1), 101. Doi: 10.1080/01930826.2017.1399709

4Alajmi, Bibi. (2016). When the Nation is in Crisis: Libraries Respond. Library Management. 37. 10.1108/LM-05-2016-0043.