Dealing with library disaster at Tulane University

Home Blog Dealing with library disaster at Tulane University

Do you believe in the common superstition that bad things happen in threes?

It’s possible that some people in Tulane University’s library system started feeling that way this summer, when two water-related disasters occurred within a few months of each other, while the University is still recovering from the record-breaking disaster that happened nearly ten years ago.

Flooding Disaster Number 1 – The Big One

Like the rest of New Orleans, Tulane was presented with a record-breaking disaster in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina paid a visit to the city. Her ‘gift’ to the University included eight feet of water left standing in the basement of the main library building – an area about the size of a football field – and four feet of water in a second building that housed the University’s Special Collections. Hundreds of thousands of books, government documents, newspapers, microforms, personal papers and other information assets were damaged.

This disaster recovery process was going to require both skilled librarianship as well as complex project management capabilities. Yet the University could not pull away its own staff from regular library duties, nor could it justify hiring people for diminishing needs over a finite period of time. LAC Group became involved when we were selected to run the University’s Libraries Recovery Center.

Libraries Recovery Center

LAC manager Del Hamilton has been overseeing that function from the beginning. Her team was tasked with a full gamut of library responsibilities from cataloging to moving books to bar-coding and more. And Del notes that meeting the University’s priorities became one of her top priorities:

“Tulane identified their Music Collection as the highest priority to return.  LAC staff managed to process and return that collection to the library prior to the beginning of the 2008 fall semester, just six months after opening the center.”

Currently LAC Staff are assisting the library in a massive undertaking to identify unique materials within the library’s collection that are truly rare.  Del’s team is verifying the accuracy of the existing bibliographic record to the actual item for correct identification. Based on existing criteria, the book’s condition is evaluated and notes added for future preservation work.

“We work closely with Tulane librarians to help determine an item’s rarity based on whether it is held by other libraries in the OCLC system and to help evaluate the preservation needs.”

The team has scaled up and down throughout the project, from a high of 26 to a low of five people, most of whom were full-time LAC Group employees with benefits. As staffing needs have changed, we have lost some people to attrition, while others have been moved to different LAC projects and clients.

Flooding Disaster Number 2

Tulane was well out of the woods – or should I say the flooded basement – when disaster struck again in the most ironic fashion.

Needless to say, after Katrina the basement was ruled out forever by the University, not to mention the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as collection storage space. This led to an expansion of the library, replacing the lost square footage with the addition of two new floors on top of the building.

This construction project resulted in a second flood, caused by a combination of human error and an ill-timed rainstorm earlier this year, in the spring of 2014. A subcontractor drilled a few inches longer than specifications, creating two small holes that were big enough to let a substantial amount of rainwater enter and create another flooding problem. Once again, thousands of books had to be removed from circulation for drying and restoration or for replacing and restocking as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Disaster Number 3

The third incident was not actually a flood, but water damage. It happened in the University’s Matas Health Sciences Library just recently, during the summer. This time the problem was collateral damage due to a different kind of disaster– a small lab fire in the same building as the medical library that caused the sprinkler system to engage.

Approximately 2500 rare medical books and journals were removed and dried by a professional book restoration company.  After being returned to the Recovery Center, Del and her team are evaluating the condition of each item and processing for proper archival storage until the materials can be moved back to the library and re-shelved.

Library Recovery after Disaster

These three events illustrate the capricious nature of disasters and the complications of recovery. I think Del summarized it well in her own description of our work at Tulane:

“I like to say we’re the ‘What’s Next?’ people. First we address the immediate needs, but then we move on to what’s next.”

I’m sure the only ‘what’s next’ that Tulane’s Library System wants to consider is the successful completion of the new floors to the main building. As for us, I would agree with Del that “what’s next” paints a pretty accurate picture of how we help our clients, whether it’s disaster recovery or other information asset requirements.

We view it as an unfortunate coincidence that these three events happened to one of our clients, but we have been happy to be there for recovery assistance. LAC Group is especially proud to have been a close partner in the process of making the Tulane University library system whole again in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Relevant Links:

From the Tulane University website news archive, an article about the library recovery process after Hurricane Katrina.

From the library’s website, a blog post on the library build-back and hazard mitigation project.

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