University Libraries, University of New Mexico

Fran Wilkinson, Interim Dean of the University Libraries at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico, discusses the impact of a fire at the academic library in April 2006.

Interview date: July 31st, 2007

Questions:

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

On Sunday, April 30, 2006 at approximately 10:51pm (one hour before the library closed and more importantly, one week before UNM’s finals week for students), a fire alarm sounded from the first basement level of Zimmerman Library. Zimmerman is the largest of the four branch libraries of the University Libraries. Although the fire was contained in the northeast section of the basement destroying over a dozen ranges of bound journals (estimated 30,000 volumes lost and 100,000 volumes removed for cleaning and restoration), there was significant smoke damage throughout the entire 280,000 square foot building including the historic West Wing.

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

Library and University Response

University Libraries (UL) personnel safely evacuated the entire facility within minutes. Three stations of the Albuquerque Fire Department, UNM Campus Police, and other key response personnel were immediately dispatched to the library. Key members of the University Libraries Disaster Recovery Assistance Team (D.R.A.T.) were also immediately called. The Associate Dean, Fran Wilkinson, and the Facilities Manager, Ed Padilla, were onsite within an hour after the fire started and provided critical information to the Fire Marshal, Campus Police, UNM’s Physical Plant and Safety and Risk Services. These two DRAT members remained on site the entire night monitoring the situation, reviewing pertinent parts of the UL’s disaster preparedness plan, and preparing an outline of the actions needed in the coming days and weeks. The Associate Dean notified members of Libraries’ D.R.A.T. and activated the phone tree to notify other essential personnel. The first D.R.A.T. meeting was called for 8:00 a.m. the next morning.

The D.R.A.T. meeting resulted in immediate plans to redeploy the 100 plus employees who normally work in Zimmerman Library including faculty/librarians, support staff, administration, and student employees. A fire recovery command center was established in a branch library (Centennial Science & Engineering Library) and all efforts were coordinated from there. Services to students and faculty were fully coordinated including:

  • Reference service stations were set up in the Student Union building and the Student Services building with full electronic access to information services through the use of laptops and cell phones (first day after the fire).
  • Notification to students and faculty about the closure of Zimmerman and where to find alternative services was sent through several internal electronic and print methods.
  • Information stations/tents at both entrances to Zimmerman Library were staffed to answer questions and direct customers to alternative service sites.
  • UL InterLibrary Loan department set up temporary offices and began providing access to books and journals normally located in Zimmerman.
  • Online book paging system was set up that gave access to collections not unduly affected by smoke damage with a 24-hour turn around time.

Over the next few weeks, all journals, microforms, and newspapers located in Zimmerman Library were removed by the company hired to manage this aspect of the damage (BMS-CAT). Those collections remain in Ft. Worth, Texas undergoing remediation services (They are expected to be returned during the Fall 2007 semester. The reconstructed basement is scheduled to reopen in early in the Spring 2008 semester.)

Unusual Roles

The role and responsibilities of every UL employee were impacted by the fire in some way whether specifically involved in the recovery or by adding to an employee’s overall volume of work. All provided information about the fire and directed our customers to the alternative services in place. Many stepped in to staff the reference desks around campus. Our IT offices were located in the basement but fortunately, all servers were located off-site in the campus-wide IT facility, so no loss of data or access to online catalogs or websites were experienced. The library IT staff quickly began working to install new desktop and laptop computers for all displaced employees and for the temporary public services information desks. Our accountants processed the first payroll after the fire on time in spite of having to process it manually in a temporary location. Staff and students volunteered for the book paging system. This required them to wear hard hats and masks, working only two hours at a time on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the building to avoid excessive exposure to smoke damaged areas. A few key employees were called upon to coordinate the difficult job of sifting through the thousands of bound journals that were not completely burned to determine which were still salvageable – a job that required a hard hat, a respirator, and boots! Facilities staff also assisted with the removal of all journals, microforms, cabinets, shelving, equipment, and furnishings in the basement. All of the employees who normally work in Zimmerman worked in unfamiliar environments as they relocated in one of the other branch libraries, often at make-shift desks and shared computers. The employees who do not work in Zimmerman shifted their work spaces to make room for these redeployed employees – and always with grace and humor. We should add that approximately one-third (about 50 individuals) of all the displaced employees still have still not returned to their normal work environments as the rebuild of their spaces is currently underway. We anticipate their return in late 2007.

An unusual aspect to the recovery was that Zimmerman Library’s alarm system was only partially functional after the fire. The Fire Marshall permitted reoccupation of the building, but only if a manual “fire watch” was deployed until the alarm services were fully operational again. This involved scheduling individuals to patrol all areas of the building during our hours of operation. The fire watch squads were outfitted with hard hats and air horns and were tasked with alerting the building’s occupants at any sign of fire. UL employees were called upon to provide fire watch duty of up to five hours per week. More than three months later, fire watch duties were turned over to a security agency.

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

Our recovery efforts have led to several innovations that are still used today including unique workflows, streamlined procedures, and synergistic work unit configurations. The rebuilding process also provided several opportunities to improve work unit and public spaces including a marked increase in public computer stations, group study space, as well as better access to collections.

The basement area that burned will be fitted with a new compact shelving system thanks to funding provided by the state legislature and UNM’s administration, dramatically increasing needed collection space. Our collection losses also allowed for some creative thinking on the part of faculty in the various departments whose collections were affected. These scholars and researchers will provide input regarding which of the lost bound journals can be replaced electronically and which can be stored remotely, again, saving much needed space.

A fire loss of this magnitude also brings out the best in a library’s established contributors, the community at large, and other library professionals. We experienced an outpouring of help from each of these groups and have established relationships that will continue to grow.

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

Libraries and their employees must play primary and instrumental roles in every aspect of emergency preparedness, planning, and recovery. Policies, response teams, priorities, and resources should be established, tested, and then revisited on a regular cycle. This has been the UL’s practice since the mid-1990s. These elements are critical to ensure first rate functionality of the facility and continuance of first rate services to our customers. I believe that every library employee has a critical role to play in the response to and recovery from a disaster affecting the library and its customers. Some of those roles are small and some are huge, but none are less than essential.

(5.) Please describe the nature of your relationship with emergency agencies or groups.

The UL has long-held working relationships with the State Fire Marshall Office, the UNM Fire Marshall, the UNM Safety and Risk Services, its Physical Plant Services, UNM Campus Police, Office of Capital Projects, Architects, Engineers, and various emergency response suppliers and contractors. Through our Administration and Facilities Services departments we constantly update and strengthen these ties. The UL also maintains a Preservation Committee and several members of the UL staff and faculty belong to the New Mexico Library Association’s New Mexico Preservation Alliance. Both of these committees are actively involved in disaster response and recovery planning and provide advice to other libraries throughout the state.
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