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Louisiana State University, School of Library and Information Sciences

Friday, June 8th, 2007

Adelaide Fletcher, currently a librarian at the Denver Medical Library, Presbyterian / St. Luke’s Medical Library in Denver, Colorado and formerly a student at Louisiana State University, School of Library and Information Sciences in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, discusses her Hurricane Katrina experience from August 2005.

Interview date: June 8th, 2007


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

I was a student at Louisiana State University’s School of Library and Information Sciences when Hurricane Katrina swept through the gulf coast. At the time, I was in Baton Rouge. But, I ended up volunteering at The Lamar Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales (about half way between Baton Rouge and New Orleans). The Expo Center filled with more than 1800 evacuees from New Orleans after the levees broke.

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

I volunteered at the Expo Center, doing whatever was required. I provided “general support,” getting people toothbrushes, basic supplies, etc… It was while I was getting someone an aspirin that I stumbled upon the medical treatment area of the Expo Center. I saw a Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR) lying around and I asked the doctor if he wanted more reference materials. He asked for a Merck Manual and three Washington Manuals.

I posted a request for books to the medical libraries listserv, MEDLIB-L and three other listservs. Well, the email was forwarded and forwarded … And the books came and came … They all came to my home. It was a tremendous response! The medical librarians sent some great books – much better than the ones I originally requested. I tried to send as many thank you notes as I could, but there were just too many donations. Some of the books were unsuitable (like a 1965 Merck Manual), but I had more than enough to build a collection in the shelter.

I tried my best to distribute the extra books but it was an absolute nightmare getting around at that time. Also, I didn’t know where the other shelters were located. Later, I ended up donating materials to under funded local hospital libraries in Southeast Louisiana.. I worked with my friend Becky Hebert, an outreach librarian for the Mid Atlantic Chapter of the National Network of the Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM). She and I tried to supply shelter health care providers with computers, Internet connections and volunteer librarians to do distance searching. Her husband worked in IT and he helped get a bunch of free computers. Unfortunately, most of those computers weren’t used because they had Linux as an operating system and people couldn’t fill out their FEMA forms unless they had Internet Explorer. But, people needed to get online. Eventually, FEMA provided a few lap tops. These helped a bit with reference and searching for people, but they were mostly used by kids to play games. I worked a bit helping people use the computers, especially since many were unfamiliar with the use of a mouse and keyboard. Web 2.0 responded in a big way; but, it could only go so far. People on the ground were unable to take full advantage of blogs and wikis, etc… because they didn’t have:

1. the connectivity

2. the computer skills

3. the knowledge of what was out there to help them.

After it was all over, I wrote an article about my experiences.

(3.) What did you learn from this experience?

The experience was totally exhausting and it took an emotional toll as well. But, in the end, I learned a lot. For example, there were a lot of shelters that were in the same boat. My response could have been much more coordinated. I did ask for multiple copies of resources, but I didn’t plan a way to deliver them. And the next time I appeal for donations on a listserv, I will be more specific and include a time limit. I should have asked for current materials and different titles. People wanted to help, but I didn’t tell that what exactly was needed and my friends and I quickly got bogged down in the details. A lot of items were received well after the point when they could have been any use.

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

There isn’t really one answer to that question because every disaster is so different. Librarians shouldn’t wait for an invitation; just start helping. People needed basics and they didn’t necessarily think about information. But, they really did need information; just look at how the public libraries were overwhelmed. So many people turned to the library. There is definitely a role for the library in a community disaster response.

When I was serving food with Becky, We realized that there had to be something more that we could offer. There were hordes of volunteers, but we could offer something different. That was how we got started. But, it was hard being “free agents.” No one wanted to talk to us and it was hard to articulate what we wanted to do. The Red Cross didn’t have time to talk to us. We tried to find out from them where the other shelters were, but they were having a hard enough time figuring that out themselves. The Red Cross was overwhelmed with need and volunteers at the same time, but they couldn’t handle both in that magnitude.

I went to the Red Cross headquarters first off, but they told me that I was too late for the training session that day. They told me to come back in a few days But, when we went to a shelter that night, the need was urgent and they pulled us right in! That was how we ended up at Lamar Dixon, which was desperate for volunteers. There just seemed to be this disconnect between the Red Cross central office and “its” shelters.

A lot of library school students helped. But they all went off on their own right away. I can see a role for the library schools in organizing the student volunteers. In many ways we were ideal because we were more available to help out. I was encouraged by my boss, the dean, to volunteer rather than work.

But actual coordinated groups didn’t form until later. I think that librarians need to be more unified in their initial response. We could learn a lot from the church groups. The Scientologists, for example, were everywhere. They wore matching shirts. They identified themselves. They seemed to be totally organized. Religious organizations did more for anyone than any government agency. That’s just what they do; they respond immediately. And they never stopped to ask, “should we help?” I think librarians were way too hesitant about helping out. They need to learn to trust their instincts. When the time comes, you’ll know what people need and how to help them.

University of California San Diego

Friday, June 1st, 2007

Julie Page, Head of the Preservation Department at the Geisel Library at the University of California San Diego, talks about the flood that affected the neighboring academic library at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in October 2004 and the library’s participation in the recovery efforts.

Interview date: June 1st , 2007


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

I was called in to help the University of Hawaii at Manoa when a flash flood caused a stream to jump its banks in the hills above the campus. The flood affected the medical and science buildings and their labs and around 20 other buildings including the library. The first floor library building was below grade and it completely filled with water. Water poured into one side of the building and out the other. Inside, the water sloshed around like a washing machine.

The library had a disaster plan but the university did not. It took them a long time to get back on their feet. Everything took forever; it took two and a half months for generators to get hooked up to provide power to the four story library building that was affected. Getting supplies and services to the island was difficult and time consuming. About 25 staff members were displaced from their offices and work spaces. Luckily, aside from the university campus, there was very little damage done to the rest of the community.

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

The University Librarian at UC San Diego was well-known to the library administration at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He offered assistance right away. During the first week, the library staff salvaged as much as they could of the collection. I went over to help out 15 days after the flooding occurred. Observing the disaster first hand provided me with on-the-ground experience in a disaster situation. But, before that point, they weren’t ready to deal with the myriad of insurance, psychological, and preservation issues; they needed time to get back on their feet.

Initially, I was there for four days and then went back two months later. I was sent back to help the University Librarian. It was a complicated situation since there were problems to deal with on both the campus level and the library level. To some extent, the library had been overlooked. I went back to UHM two and a half years later to take part in follow-up assessments of the recovery and evaluation of affected materials. A big plus was that the Preservation Librarian used the UHM experiences as a learning experience to be shared with the rest of the preservation community – through articles, symposia, and other collaborative efforts.

The expectation at first was that I would help to deal with the insurance issues. Priority materials had been put in freezers; luckily the library had established priorities ahead of time. They were only able to salvage about 15% of the first floor collections. Maps and photographs and some book collections were saved. They focused their attention on preserving priority materials important to the campus and Pacific region.

Cargo container freezer storage was acquired from Matson (shipping company) as soon as possible, in accordance with the library disaster plan. There were five large freezers parked around the library for several weeks. Then Matson wanted their containers back. The university kept one cargo freezer with materials that they were going to preserve in their own conservation lab. Many other objects had to be moved to cold storage, and I helped them evaluate and transfer the materials. The disaster recovery company BELFOR, headquartered in Ft. Worth, TX was hired to handle the recovery of the priority materials including setting protocols for treatment, shipping from Hawaii to Texas, vacuum freeze drying and cleaning the maps, photographs and books, as well as shipping them back to Hawaii.

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

The university learned a couple of important lessons. The first was never to keep collections on first floors, in basements, or in below-grade buildings. The second was about leadership. If you don’t have enough administrative depth — not enough people at the higher levels — it is very challenging to make good decisions in a crisis. You do the best you can, with the information and staff you have. You need a strong leader and administrative depth. In general, they discovered the importance of flexibility. In order to deal with any disaster event, you need to be capable of constantly evaluating and changing your course of action.

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

Libraries can offer emergency assistance in their area through regional centers with preservation services. They can also offer training to other institutions to pass on the knowledge for dealing with emergency situations.

Every library should have a disaster plan; the institution should know how it will communicate and what their priorities will be. They should exercise the plans through practice so that they are prepared when the time comes.

Librarians should build relationships with emergency responders and understand ICS (Incident Command System). Collaborations should also be developed with volunteer organizations, particularly those who are distributing medical information. Libraries can help a great deal by establishing communications, developing collaborative relationships, and effectively training staff to respond to an emergency or disaster.