Part 1: The Magical Disaster Tour: What I did and Didn’t Learn About Library Disaster Plans in the Aiken-Augusta Area

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Trey Bunn

CLIS 796

Independent Study Report

December 10, 2004

Naughty and Nice: A Survey Examining the Existence and Lack of Disaster Plans in South Carolina Libraries


In late 2004, I conducted a survey of libraries throughout South Carolina to determine the prevalence of disaster plans. My preliminary survey of disaster plans earlier in the year of a smaller area had turned up a surprisingly small number of plans, a finding that intrigued me. In an effort to learn whether or not my findings were typical, I set about surveying all of South Carolina to see if perhaps some areas were more likely to have disaster plans, and in the cases where no plans were in place, if there were any noticeable patterns in the reasons why. It was this second scenario that I was most interested in, but the unfortunately low response rate to my survey provided me with very little of the insight I was seeking.

Part 1: The Magical Disaster Tour: What I Did and Didn’t Learn About Library Disaster Plans in the Aiken-Augusta Area

One of the classes I took during spring 2004 while earning my Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of South Carolina was a course in Preservation Planning and Administration. Both this class and one of my previous classes emphasized the importance of disaster planning, stating that every library or similar institution should have a disaster plan in place. With this in mind, I decided for my term project to compare the different disaster plans of libraries in my community. What I hadn’t anticipated was my misunderstanding of what my professors (and the literature on the subject) had told me: every library should have a disaster plan. I of course knew that not every library had one, but I expected to find enough plans to compare. As it turned out, nearly all of the libraries I visited were completely lacking disaster plans.

This was not a small area, either. I had initially planned to cover only Augusta, Georgia, and North Augusta, South Carolina, but events led me to also visit libraries in Aiken, South Carolina. Aiken County (of which North Augusta is a part) is one of the largest counties in South Carolina (1080 square miles), and, when combined with Richmond County (of which Augusta is a part), which is much smaller but more densely populated, the two counties serve a population of over 225,000 people.

Out of the ten libraries I visited, only two had disaster plans. To say ten libraries is misleading, however, because in the case of both Aiken and Richmond Counties, if the main branch of the public library did not have a disaster plan, then none of the branch libraries did, either. Furthermore, Aiken’s library system encompasses not just Aiken County but three other counties (Bamberg, Barnwell, and Edgefield) for a total of 15 libraries. Richmond County has seven public libraries. The other libraries that I visited or telephoned were academic libraries and one military library. So, to be more accurate, what I found was that only two out of approximately 30 libraries serving nearly a quarter of a million people had disaster plans in place. Picturing all of those helpless, unprotected books would be enough to make any mild mannered librarian go white with fear. Maybe.

This brings me to the literature on disaster planning that I read for my classes and in preparation for this first project. We’ve all read the articles, stories of libraries that suffered from fires, hurricanes, floods (both natural and sprinkler or pipe induced), earthquakes, and even the September 2001 terrorist attacks. I dubbed these articles “horror stories,” as most of them followed the same pattern: start off with a story of doom and disaster in order to shock the reader, then follow it with how the library recovered, how its disaster plan saved the day, or how the staff learned that it should have had a disaster plan, then tidy the article up with suggestions for how other libraries can develop plans if they don’t have them. Reading this, I became aware that there were two types of libraries out there: those who did not have disaster plans (naughty) and those that did (nice). With all of the finger-wagging from the nice libraries to the naughty ones I encountered, I still expected the nice to far outnumber the naughty.

So when I did my informal survey of the Aiken-Augusta area and found such a huge dearth of disaster planning, I was more than a little surprised. Why was it like this? Didn’t the people running these places read the professional literature? Were they ignorant of the risks, or were they ignoring them intentionally? Could they simply not afford to create disaster plans because of lack of funding or personnel? Perhaps it was a regional issue, that is, places other than my community (which honestly doesn’t see too many disasters) might be more prone to disaster preparedness. Perhaps on the coast, where hurricanes are a greater danger, libraries would be more likely to be prepared.

Unfortunately for my term project, though, these questions came to me too late, and I had to stick with what little data I had been able to gather and report on it. Still, the paper I wrote was well received by both the professor and the class when I presented it. Aside from reporting on the disaster plans from the two academic libraries I was able to find, I detailed my tour of the area and the difficulties I encountered in my research. In most cases, I visited a library and spoke to staff face to face, though there were some instances where I could only get in touch with someone in authority by phone. Some of the librarians seemed embarrassed not to have disaster plans, others seemed resigned about it, and some of the staff didn’t even know what a disaster plan was. In a few of the cases, the libraries had emergency evacuation procedures, but nothing related to procedures on what to do once back in the building. When I explained to the reference staff at the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library what I was looking for, student assistant Jameliah Shorter joked, “Oh, no, if something happens, we just run!” She was not too far from the truth, both in her own library and in the majority of libraries in the area.

After the semester was over, my professor offered me the chance to expand my paper into a larger, more developed project. She wanted me to further explore some of the questions I had come up with regarding the lack of disaster preparedness, perhaps by studying a larger area. After a few emails, meetings, and an introductory class in Research Methods taken during the summer semester, I was on my way.

Part 2: Methodology: This Time, It’s Impersonal

The first things I needed to decide were how I was going to go about my research this time and how large of a geographical area I would want to study. I decided to cover the entire state of South Carolina, which would once again include Aiken County but would leave out Richmond County. This was acceptable; the two libraries I had been able to find with disaster plans were in Richmond County, and I was actually more interested in surveying libraries without disaster plans. I knew that I would hear from both naughty and nice libraries, and I was still interested in trying to spot any commonalities among the nice ones, but what intrigued me most was the possibility of finding out just what made the naughty libraries naughty. I had, after all, heard plenty of reasons (or excuses) from the naughty libraries in my previous study, so I was looking forward to hearing more and truly analyzing them.

Because of restraints on time and money, visiting every library in South Carolina would of course be impossible. I decided to send out a survey by email to all public, academic, and special libraries in South Carolina whose addresses I could find online. At the time, I thought that this would be a good way to get a large, random sampling of the state’s libraries. I wanted as large of a sample as possible because I knew from my Research class that surveys and questionnaires tend to have a low response rate.

In designing the survey, it was necessary to have it diverge at some point. That is, while all libraries responding to it would be able to answer some of the questions, eventually there would have to be two sets of questions, one for those with a disaster plan and one for those without.

The first section was simply for identification: the name and location of the library, the type of library (academic, public, or special), and the size of the collection. This last criterion proved to be problematic, as the way library collection sizes are defined can be sketchy (do you define this by the number of physical volumes, or the number of titles, etc.). Really, all I wanted was a vague idea of whether the library was small, medium, or large, but I needed a way to ask that question without being tempted to follow it up with, “Would you like fries with that?” In the end, I decided to define small as less than 250,000 items, medium as 250,000 items to 1,000,000 items, and large to be greater than 1,000,000. I would leave the interpretation of the term “items” up to the individual respondents.

The identification section also had blanks for the person filling out the survey to tell me who they were and how I might contact them in case I needed to clarify any of their answers. This turned out to be a smart move on my part, especially when some respondents either skipped important questions or gave vague answers. I also gave them the option of requesting that I keep their name and the name of their institution confidential if I felt the need to mention anything specific in my report. About half of the respondents did want me to keep their identities confidential, both those with and without disaster plans.

The second section was where I attempted to test one of the theories brought about by my previous study. Would libraries in areas more prone to disasters be more likely to be prepared? In this section, respondents were given a list of several disasters: flood, fire, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, severe winter weather, electrical blackout, civil disorder (such as rioting), hazardous material incident, and bomb/explosion. (I came up with these choices from various articles on disaster planning I had read; I knew from my previous study that the two libraries that had disaster plans had gone about developing theirs by reviewing such literature.) The respondents were asked to rate (from very likely to very unlikely) how prone they felt their area was to each disaster. A second part of the section was more specific, asking how prone the actual building was to each of the above disasters, adding a few more to the list: sabotage/vandalism, pest infestation, mold outbreak, and power surge.

The third section was where the split occurred. Section 3A was for libraries with disaster plans; section 3B was for those lacking plans. The instructions for this section also pointed out the possible gray area of making this distinction. Libraries who were in the process of developing a plan but had not yet completed one were encouraged to fill out Section 3A only if they felt that, in the event of a disaster, what they had come up with so far would be adequate to address it. As it turned out, though, all of the libraries who filled out this section already had plans in place.

Section 3A first asked how long the library or institution had a disaster plan and how often it is updated. Then respondents were asked to briefly describe the contents of the plan. The next question was an important one as it addressed one of my core issues: Why? That is, what factors determined the necessity of a disaster plan in these institutions? Choices included: requirement of higher institution (this was the case for the two libraries in my previous study that had plans, a requirement of the University System of Georgia, of which both libraries were a part), administration felt that it was a good idea, located in an area prone to disasters, collection is rare and in need of protection, literature on disaster planning convinced institution of the need, prior experience with disasters, and other reasons (which the respondent should then specify). The rest of the section asked if the plan applied to just one building or several (as would be the case with public libraries with several branches as well as larger colleges and universities), if the disaster plan had ever had to be put into action, what the disaster was, and how successful the plan was in recovering or safeguarding the collection. Within this and all other sections of the survey, space was given for any additional comments the respondents might feel was relevant to the study.

Section 3B started off with another core question, this one for the libraries without disaster plans: Why does your library or institution not have a disaster plan in place? Choices given were: belief that such a plan is unnecessary, belief that institution is safe and not vulnerable to disasters, located in an area not prone to disasters, lack of funding, resources, or time to develop a plan, or the issue has never come up. Those of us familiar with disaster planning literature might scoff at some of those choices, but all of them were derived from the reasons and excuses I heard from various staff during my initial survey. One library director even seemed a bit smug about it, calling the lack of a disaster plan a “non-issue” given that all of the material that students used was available online. It was at that point that I restrained myself from pointing out to him that computers, for all their technological glory, don’t function very well underwater or on fire.

The section continued with other questions, asking if their library is in the process of developing a plan, and if not, if there are plans to develop one in the future. Then the question is put forth: Do you feel that your institution should have a disaster plan? Finally, I asked if, in lieu of a complete disaster plan, is there a smaller, less detailed emergency evacuation plan of some kind, and if so, what this plan contains. This was another question inspired by my previous study (and Ms. Shorter’s “we just run” quip). In that study, some of the people I encountered thought that a floor plan and short list of evacuation procedures constituted a disaster plan. While it did not, it still could be called better than nothing, and I wanted to be sure to take note of any libraries that at least had this much preparedness, or worse, not even that.

That was the survey I developed, and once all of the email addresses were gathered (66 total), I sent out the survey in mid-October. Respondents were given the option of emailing the survey back to me or, if they felt more comfortable with inkjet and paper, to print it out and mail it to me. A follow-up email was sent out the first week of November in an attempt to gain more responses. I noted the answers on a spreadsheet I had developed with each of the libraries’ names, location, and contact information, planning to use it to find any patterns or correlations.

Another thing I did in an attempt to test my theory that coastal libraries would be more likely to have disaster plans than those further inland was to print out a county map of South Carolina and place map pins on it where each survey had been sent. Initially, each location had a white pin. As each survey came back, I would replace its corresponding white pin with a red pin if they had no disaster plan and a green pin if they had one. If my theory was correct, there would be more green pins closer to the coast and more red pins further inland. If I was wrong, there would be no noticeable pattern to the red and green pins. And if attempting to accurately sample libraries in South Carolina by sending out a survey by email was perhaps not the best idea in the world, I would have an overabundance of white pins.

Part 3: South Carolina: The White Pin State

At first, it looked like the response rate to my survey would be high. Within only one day of sending it out, four libraries responded. That was encouraging. It was also misleading. By the time the three-week deadline was reached, only nine libraries had responded, two of which did not have disaster plans. I had already been planning on sending a follow-up email, so I did, extending the survey’s deadline another week, and I managed to get six more responses. That meant I had garnered a whopping 22.7% response rate. According to my Research Methods textbook, nothing less than a 50% response rate is adequate for analysis and reporting.

Because of this dismal return, I really did not feel like I had enough data to make any claims about the reasons behind disaster plans’ presence or absence. With only four libraries reporting their lack of a disaster plan, there just wasn’t enough data to work with. This was the category I had been most interested in (which, admittedly, is more or less the converse of my previous study). Eleven “nice” libraries would probably yield something worth talking about, if I could see any patterns emerging, that is.

As for my red/green/white pin idea, well, there were a few green pins on the coast, one representing that juggernaut of disaster planning (if you read the literature), the Beaufort County Public Library System. And while there was a red pin in the western-most reaches of the state, there were also two red pins rather close to the coast and plenty of green pins in the west. Had there not been so many white pins swamping the others, though, I might still have been able to notice a trend. Then again, I was being rather sloppy in my thinking here, focusing on only one type of disaster: hurricanes (which admittedly can also bring about floods or other disasters). Really, the pin idea was a waste, but I’ll admit that it was a little bit fun to feel like one of those cops in the movies who has to mark the map with all the pins and just find some connection!!

Pointless pins (reverse pun intended) aside, I set about looking through the surveys, separating the naughty from the nice and marking which ones wanted their identities kept confidential. Then I went through both sets to see if any commonalities were present.

First of all, on the libraries without disaster plans, as I said, there were only four respondents in this category. The only one of the four who did not want to be kept confidential was one I have reported on before, the Aiken-Bamberg-Barnwell-Edgefield (ABBE) Regional Library System. Despite the large geographic area this system covers, the library’s collection falls into the small (less than 250,000 items) category. Collection size was in fact one of the only two factors that was consistent with all four “naughty” libraries. The other libraries (a public library in western South Carolina and two academic ones in the east) also reported this collection size, but the responses varied greatly otherwise.

In response to the likelihood of specific disasters in their areas or buildings, the libraries’ answers varied and seemed to have no relation to each other. ABBE seemed most concerned with its proximity to the Savannah River Site and the increased risk of a hazardous material incident. The library director also cited sabotage/vandalism, pest infestation, mold outbreak, and power surge as somewhat to very likely. The public library in western South Carolina reported most disasters as moderately to very unlikely.

One of the academic libraries reported all but one of the disasters as moderately to very unlikely, though it cited mold outbreak as very likely. The other academic library, located only a short distance closer to the coast, seemed much more concerned with flood, hurricane, tornado, electrical blackout, pest infestation, mold outbreak, and power surge. Could there really be that much difference in the areas, or was one librarian being too complacent, or the other being too Chicken Little? Had I been able to get more responses, I might have been able to see more discrepancies like this and make some kind of educated guess.

As for why these libraries do not have disaster plans, the answers varied there, too. ABBE reported that its reason was the lack of funding, resources, and time to develop a plan. The other public library agreed, adding that its area was not prone to disasters. The two academic libraries differed, one saying that the issue had never come up, the other stating that while the library does not have its own disaster plan, the college does.

The other factor that all four libraries agreed on was that they should have a disaster plan. One of the academic libraries was already developing one, but the other was neither developing one nor had any plans to in the future. The same was true for the western public library, and ABBE plans to develop one soon. The three libraries not named in this group all have emergency evacuation plans, but ABBE does not. That last bit of information struck me as a bit scary; again I invoke the image of spooked librarians, wide-eyed and going pale with fear.

Turning to the libraries equipped with disaster plans, even though there are more responses, there still weren’t very many noticeable patterns. The sizes of the collections covered all three of my defined ranges, so I can’t make any claims that library size affects disaster preparedness.

In terms of the perceived vulnerabilities for each institution (six out of 11 of which were public, the others academic), these also varied a great deal. Some libraries reported high probabilities of disaster, so of course it makes sense that these libraries would be of the “nice” variety. But there were just as many libraries that reported low risk in most categories, yet their disaster plans were there just the same. The Orangeburg County Library System said that they were very likely to be struck by flood, fire, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, sabotage/vandalism, pest infestation, and power surge (and somewhat likely to have a mold outbreak). Orangeburg also stood out as the respondent whose disaster plan had been in place the longest: 20 years. Most of the other libraries reported figures between three and six years, but Orangeburg has apparently been ahead of the game for quite some time. If their area really is as prone to such chaos as the library director reported on this survey, it’s easy to understand why. But then there were other libraries that reported low risk, such as the James A. Rogers Library at Francis Marion University in Florence County. The librarian who filled out the survey never rated any of the listed disasters any higher than moderately likely, yet their plan has been in place for six years and is updated annually. That is another thing that most of the libraries in this category share: most of them update their plans annually (or try to).

Nearly all of these libraries stated that their disaster plan had been put into action in the past, describing floods, hurricanes, mold, and many of the other evils that we’ve read about in the “horror story” literature. To give these stories happy endings, though, all of the libraries reported that their disaster plans had been either very successful or moderately successful in recovering or safeguarding their collections.

As for the reasons behind why these libraries had disaster plans in place, the responses were more varied. The most popular response was that the administration felt it was a good idea, but given that it was often library directors who filled out these surveys, I have to wonder if there was any bias in those responses. The other two most popular responses were that the area was prone to disasters and that the literature convinced them of the need for a disaster plan.

I present these results a bit resignedly, though, as I’m reporting from a handful of results that I wish had been more plentiful. I can report on what I found, but I don’t particularly think what I found was valid. I find myself wondering how my map would have looked had there not been so many white pins in it. Why did all of those libraries not respond? Was the survey too long or unappealing? Were they too busy? Unconcerned? (By the way, I must say a big hello to all five libraries in Richland County who did not respond, Richland County being the area where I attend library school.)

Conclusion: What Haven’t We Learned?

I realize now that I should have taken a different approach to this study. Surveys are known for not getting very good response rates, but when I was planning everything, I felt that was the best way to reach the most number of libraries. Still, perhaps I should have made more of an effort to get the survey out to libraries whose email addresses I couldn’t find online. By not doing that, I think I skewed my sample, as I was limiting myself not only to libraries that have web pages (though as far as I know, most of them do), but libraries that have web pages that list the staff email addresses or at least a generic library email address. And out of those 66 (68, actually, but two of the addresses bounced the email back to me), only 15 responded.

Thinking back to my previous study, one of the major differences is that I drove to nearly all of those libraries and talked to people. Even though most of them had no disaster plans, I still got my data (if we’re focusing on the binary have/have not issue, which was a major part of this study). That’s because I wasn’t likely to get a non-response when I was standing there. A survey, on the other hand, is much easier to ignore. Honestly, had I the time and the money, I would love to make a semester-long road trip to every library in South Carolina and speak to the librarians about their disaster plans or lack thereof. That wouldn’t be possible for me. I thought that sending the survey out via email would make it easy and convenient for me and for the respondents, but deep down I also knew how easy and convenient it would be for whoever received it to hit their delete button. I probably should have taken the middle road done a phone survey instead. If I had it to do all over again, that’s probably what I would do.

Another thing I wonder about is this: If more people had answered the survey, how many of those white pins would have been red? Was that the reason some of the libraries didn’t respond? In my previous study, I occasionally noted defensiveness and possibly embarrassment in the people I talked to whose libraries had no disaster plans. If this is a fact that you’re ashamed of, you’re probably not going to take the time to fill out a survey explaining just why your institution is not prepared. There’s also the fact that thinking about disaster planning makes some librarians uncomfortable, and many of them prefer to hide under a complacent “it can’t happen to me” blanket. As we all know from reading the literature, that kind of thinking usually leads to, well, disaster.

So I can’t honestly say that my survey gave me an accurate picture of what disaster preparedness is like in South Carolina. It did give me a fairly accurate picture of what email survey response rates in South Carolina are, though.

It’s not as though I feel that this was all a big waste of time, either, any more than my previous study was. One of the questions I asked at the end of my previous paper was why things seemed so bleak, why so few libraries in my area had disaster plans, and what could be done to improve the situation. The only thing I could come up with was for more literature on the subject to be put out, more horror stories to convince the unprepared of the importance of disaster planning. I like to think that my little survey made some small dent, added to the pile, drew a little more attention to the problem. For all those white pins out there, there was at least one person who saw the survey and what it was about, who had to think about disaster planning for at least a few seconds. This applies to both the people with plans and without. I spoke to the director of one of my nice green pin libraries one afternoon to clarify a couple of questions, and even though her library has a plan in place, she admitted that it dealt more with what to do during a disaster to protect the collection than it did with what to do afterwards. She said that my survey “got us thinking about having a better plan,” adding that the recent disaster at the University of Hawaii had been on her mind.

I suppose every disaster, even a failed survey, can have some kind of a positive impact if it impels people to act.

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Outlook 7, no. 7 (July 2003): 26-30.

Chadwell, Faye A. “Planning for the Worst: When Disaster Strikes.” OLA Quarterly 6, no. 3

(Fall 2000): 16-7.

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University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad.” Library Review 51, no. 5/6

(2002): 287.

DeCandido, GraceAnne Andreassi. “Digital Disaster Planning: When Bad Things Happen to

Good Systems.” Public Libraries 39, no. 5 (September/October 2000): 258-9.

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Journal of Academic Librarianship 27, no. 1 (January 2001): 61-2.

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Media Centers and the Flood of 1999.” North Carolina Libraries 58, no. 3 (Fall 2000):


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George, Susan C. “Library Disasters: Are You Prepared?” College & Research Libraries News

56, no. 2 (February 1995): 80-3.

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Carolina Libraries 58, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 48-53.

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37, no. 1 (January/February 2003): 73-4.

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2000): 70-2.

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Online 18 (May 1994)” 18-23.

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Parker, Susan E., Jaeger, Don, and Kern, Kristen. “What to Do When Disaster Strikes: The

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(2003): 237-42.

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