Department of Library Science and Informatics at the Medical University of South Carolina

Tom Basler, Director of Libraries and Learning Resources Centers and Chairman on the Department of Library Science and Informatics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina, discusses hurricanes, flooding, civil unrest, and radiological and toxicological events at the library.

Interview date: May 31st, 2007

Questions:

(1.) What happened in your community? (i.e., what was the disaster/emergency)?

South Carolina has hosted three different kinds of disasters/emergencies: hurricanes, flooding and civil unrest. A fourth type could also be added: radiological and toxicological events.

Hurricane Hugo was the worst storm in recent memory, but there are warnings all the time. I wasn’t there at the time; but I know a lot about Hugo through second hand sources.

(2.) How did the library respond? How did the librarian/s respond? Were there non-traditional (unusual) roles that the librarian/s performed?

The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Library is in a very central location between research and hospital areas. My staff serves a wide user community.

During the civil unrest and the 1980s hospital strike, the library concentrated on securing the building and making sure that their staff and patrons were safe.

In a hurricane, the library tries to do basically the same things. But, flooding generally occurs with a hurricane or storm; the two go hand-in-hand. In Charleston, the water comes up and the wind comes down. But the water stays. In preparation for the inevitable flooding, no collections are housed below the second floor. Planning has also resulted in changes to the electrical system; the library is now on the back-up electrical system for the hospital. Computer technicians (OCIO) at MUSC have ensured that data is backed-up and protected.

But, hurricanes provide the best example of library response. In preparation for a hurricane, the library informs their patrons by posting information on the library web-site. They also provide links to MUSC’s Emergency Page. At times, the library has served as a “gathering or command center.” In one instance, foreign students sought shelter in the library while they waited for buses to evacuate.

Library staff prepare by gathering the necessary supplies (plastic bags, clean-up materials, flash-lights, batteries, etc…). Librarians have been given emergency permission to be on campus. The library has prepared information resources that include emergency staff telephone contacts. This “calling tree” is constantly being updated. They also gathered key contact information for the university – weather, public safety, computer center information, etc… Further, they prepared a list of potential locations for staff during a storm that gives information about family members too.

Digital photographs have been taken of key equipment and emergency settings for micro-labs, servers, etc… The photographs show how the wires look and how things are placed. They have been very helpful.

The library developed staff leaving procedures. The procedures are very detailed and include a countdown of events. They outline when the micro labs and classrooms can be shut down, what order staff members can leave (Tech Services are first, Systems and the Info Desk are last). But they also outline exceptions. Some staff live in “vulnerable” areas. These include the beach, high-flood zones, over bridges that will “officially” close to traffic. Staff who live in these high risk areas, and those with children are the first to go. I remember flying into Miami during a hurricane when I worked there in the 1960s. I had to decide whether to go to work to help out or to go home. It was a hard decision. But, the right thing is to take care of your family. People come first. So, the first priority for the library is to evacuate the staff. Collections are left in place with no coverage or protection. Computers are moved and then protected with plastic coverings.

During the storm, servers are kept live as long as possible. Contact numbers provide information on personnel needed to restart them. I’m working to get a substitute URL which will provide access when the main library site goes down.

I remember being told that reference questions jumped after Hugo. But, that was in the pre-web area; other forms of information just weren’t available.

The plan is to completely evacuate all staff and all users. Physical access to the campus is denied until the “all clear” message is received. Library is now part of the Emergency Information Telephone System. The “first person in” relays “first findings” to key staff.

In the past, the library has served after a crisis as a “digging out center.” The library was a place that could function. They were connected. They were open.

But, in one case, the library had some unexpected problems to deal with as a result of the water damage. Years ago, the library suffered from water in the walls and floors. Moths ended up infesting the whole building, including the air conditioning system. They were everywhere! Exterminators had to come and take care of the moth infestation.

After the storm, the library was instrumental in forcing the computer center to make plans for future disasters. Planning at the university started with Hugo. At the time, all of the university records were backed up on tapes, which were housed on site. When Hugo was about to hit, Steve Burns from the computer center grabbed all of the tapes and put them in the back of his van and started driving away from the storm. Unluckily, Steve drove in the wrong direction and the storm chased him for hours. In the end, the tapes were saved and his actions saved the university records. But, the experience taught the university a valuable lesson. Now, all of their copies are kept out of town.

(3.) How has the library, or the services provided, changed as a result of these events?

The library has recognized two values and how they’ve changed. The first is the value of collections. MUSC library is not a “library of record,” and they will not replace lost paper collections. They are, however, a utility. And the second value is that of electronic connections and e-resources. They must stay online at all times. The key is to be “up,” and to stay up during preparation, during evacuation, through times when everyone is away, upon return and digging out, and upon return to regular business.

Also, in realizing that the library is the common gathering point for students before the disaster, the library put up a hurricane watch on their website. Collected statistics suggest that this site is also being used outside of the university community as well. In general, MUSC’s website is more open than other university’s. In fact, 10-15% of users were coming in from outside of South Carolina.

More is being done on the web. For example, the library’s community health web site, Hands on Health, (which includes a GoLocal component) has an emergency section with consumer health information about hurricanes and other disasters.

(4.) What, in your opinion, are the roles for librarians and libraries in disaster planning, response and recovery efforts?

Libraries and librarians have both primary and secondary roles. Primary roles are to keep the e-resources available, get the microcomputer labs, classrooms, and testing centers operational ASAP, and get the study-hall values back ASAP.

Secondary roles are more varied and wide-reaching. The library serves as “gathering,” “command” centers (as in the case of foreign students waiting for a bus out of town) both before and after the disaster event. Library always starts to fill up during a hurricane. The library can also be a “sorting-out place” for others (as in the case of people who need Internet access to fill out insurance type forms). Further, the library can act as a computer use area for all staff, students and others in need of a communication port.

The library also houses staff that cannot function in their own areas. And librarians serve during and after the storm in areas of expertise.

Another secondary role is in the area of outreach to the community. Librarians can train preparedness to promote community self-sufficiency.

The reality is that people “don’t think library.” I feel that people should get used to the library first. Then, the library has the responsibility “to be there” during the crisis. People will think to go there, because they already know what the library can provide.

The librarian’s first reaction is personal, then professional, then community oriented. Individuals begin to act as individuals during a disaster. An example is Doug Blands from Georgia Tech. He was able to stay and help with the animals because he had that expertise and availability. He was acting as an individual, not as a librarian. Librarians may just be the type of people who would volunteer anyways.

But, it also depends on the disaster. In the case of a hurricane, there isn’t a lot that librarians can do as professionals. But, if the case were a biological attack then the answer would be different. South Carolina is one of the more “nuclear” places in the world. The library has done a lot with Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The library brings in grants and contracts to provide information about environmental health information.

MUSC library also provides information support to the Agro-Medicine Program. In one case, an emergency room doctor called from Greensville. They had received two patients who had been bringing a truckload of peat moss from Canada. The patients had passed out and the doctor wanted to know that cause. Was it something to do with the peat moss? No. Turned out that the cause was the change in temperature coupled with their poor lungs.

I also see a role for librarians in maintaining e-resources through alternate networks. What is the point of paying for all of this proprietary information when you can only access them from the library’s web pages? What if the server goes down? How can we continue providing information if access is entirely based on IP address? It is a problem I would like more people to address. This question of URL displacement will require vendors and libraries to work together. Some possible solutions include: providing passwords for libraries that loose their connectivity, setting up a regional network of e-resources, and creating a fall back center for the institution.

Additional Questions:

(5.) Was there any contact with other emergency agencies, organizations or groups?

For hurricanes, the answer is no. The library has never been on the radar for emergency agencies. But, in a sense, the library is serving them by feeding people to their websites via the library portal.

But, in the case of environmental health issues, then yes. The library works often with EPA, Department of Energy, CDC, and the Department of Commerce.

In fact, many years ago, the library was asked by the Department of Energy to put together a one-stop program that would search multiple databases on environmental health. It was designed for cases like a tritium spill outside a bomb plant. Questions it was designed to answer were: What does the chemical do? What counteracts it? How do you respond in the short term? It was called the One Door Access System (ODAS). Unfortunately, ODAS died because it wasn’t on the web. But it was the impetus for other systems like it.