RECONSTRUCTING AN EARTHQUAKE-DAMAGED LIBRARY HINGES ON RESHORING STAFF SPIRIT AS WELL AS BRICK AND MORTAR
Shortly after 4:30 a.m. on Monday, January 17, 1994, a 6.8 earthquake struck the Los Angeles area. Indescribable jolting awakened me. A roar of sound accompanied the extraordinary movement as neighboring houses twisted, windows popped, and the contents of cupboards flew and crashed. My husband and I attempted to move to a doorframe for safety but the churning made standing impossible. Severe injury or death seemed likely when suddenly the earth fell silent. We moved quickly to a doorframe but a severe aftershock threw us to the floor. Then, once again, the earth was silent.
Within minutes of the quake, I developed a terrible sense of unease about the Oviatt Library that grew and grew even as we surveyed our own situation. Finally, when we realized that we were relatively safe, I told my husband that I must go to the library. It was 6:30 a.m.
As it turned out, I had good reason to be uneasy. California State University/Northridge, which was six miles from the epicenter, sustained damage more extensive than any other university in the history of the United States. This is the story of our recovery, and the lessons we've learned.
It was not a time to be separated so the family came with me to the campus. No traffic lights were operational and several of the streets were damaged too seriously for us to use. We detoured a number of times, and finally turned onto campus.
I don't know if I'll ever forget my first view of the library (AL, Mar. 1994, cover, p. 214). To be sure, it was standing but I could not contain the physical pain and deep sorrow I felt upon seeing the damage. I saw the north side first, at a distance. Huge pieces of the facade and the roof overhang had fallen. Windows were smashed and many of the towering columns were loose.
We parked at a reasonable distance in case the building was still falling. I got out of the car and started circling the building. Closer in, I could see through the window openings the rubble of contents on the floor. As I continued circling, a campus officer came running toward me, warning of an approaching chemical cloud generated by explosions in the science labs. I jumped back into the car and headed for the campus police station in the hopes of finding some colleagues. That was Monday.
On Wednesday, we were able to enter the library for the first time. I went in with a small team of engineers and facilities staff. Inside, it was cold, dark, silent, and broken. As I stepped through the door, I had a feeling that I had never experienced in a library before--the building felt abandoned.
No matter where we went there was destruction--computers, file cabinets, supplies, desktops, and even heavy furniture had tumbled over everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of volumes were on the floor but the stacks themselves, properly earthquake braced, were still standing. Many ceiling tiles had fallen, ceiling metal was badly twisted downward, and shattered glass was everywhere.
Oddly enough, what I remember most was the dust. For weeks afterward, the library contained a visible, interior cloud of dust that floated everywhere. It had a very adhesive quality and stuck to everything. Even now, I sometimes find that dust on library items.
Despite all this devastation, there was one real moment of pleasure when the structural engineering team pronounced the building structurally sound and the damage, however dreadful to my eye, as only cosmetic and readily repairable. Their professional opinion tempered our decision-making in the months ahead. Unfortunately, subsequent events proved them wrong (AL, Sept. 1994, p. 709-710).
Then-CSU/Northridge President Blenda J. Wilson decided to open the campus just two weeks after its regularly scheduled opening date. This gave us approximately four weeks to reestablish library service. But how? We couldn't be ready in time for the public, and the library's precious contents would be largely inaccessible for safety reasons.
Tents, trailers, and tenacity
Oviatt, of course, was not the only campus building affected. Every building on campus sustained damage and most were unusable, some for years. So, it was determined to open the university using trailers and heavy plastic domes. Eventually, over 400 trailers were moved to our campus. There was even a German literature class whose first session "was held in a professor's Dodge Caravan" because it was raining, librarian Michael Reagan recalls.
However, since the library building was expected to reopen in a few months, we were assigned only a few trailers next to Oviatt for our base of operations. This was quite an improvement from a muddy field, (especially in the drenching rains of a California winter), followed by an upgrade to a tent, and then a tent with a floor.
As our trailers arrived, we made four critical decisions:
* First, we restored our electronic resources to afford the campus community remote access, as well as interlibrary loan and a trailer-based reserve book room. We also maintained some technical services, since as Periodicals Supervisor K. C. Sluter notes, "the earthquake may have stopped the campus for awhile but it did not stop the postal service." Facing 8,000 issues awaiting check-in, K. C. had to establish manual processes until she could access the automated system.
* Second, we addressed providing the services that we could not offer from trailers, such as access to the print collection. I approached UCLA Librarian Gloria Werner, who directs our closest university library neighbor, about granting our students and faculty library privileges there until the Oviatt reopened. Gloria was both positive and supportive and so began an unusual collaboration.
Every hour on the hour, buses brought CSU/Northridge faculty and students intent on library research back and forth between our campuses. To help out, we sent some of our librarians to work reference at UCLA and we also sent funds at the end of the semester to assist with reshelving. The experience was very successful for our faculty and students. As librarian Marcia Henry said, "I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with the UCLA librarians in their reference environment." Without the help of the wonderful UCLA library staff, the quality of our instructional life the first six months after the earthquake would have been seriously impeded.
Eventually over 20 university, community-college, and public libraries provided some level of access for our campus community. Even those of us who know and love libraries were startled by how much effort it took to replace library services at the level to which our campus had become accustomed. Students and faculty were also surprised to discover how dependent they really were on library services and voted subsequently that the restoration of the Oviatt was the campus's highest priority.
* Our third decision focused on rescuing Oviatt materials that had been exposed to cold, rain, dust, and crumpling. We had early and difficult setbacks in this area due to water leaks in the library. A small crew of Oviatt staffers discovered that some of the K-12 instructional materials, which sat in troughs because of their size, were soaked. However time-consuming, this task of removing the materials proved to be relatively easy as they sat near a window and had full light. Considerably more challenging was the water leak in the windowless Special Collections area. Working for days in the darkness and dust, our brave staff donned hard hats and crawled around the floor with flashlights, feeling about for wet books and water. They packed every book they could find off to the freeze-drying service. Eventually, most of the books were saved.
Still, our greatest challenge was yet to be. Although we knew that we had to pick up 600,000 volumes that had fallen off the open shelves, we did not expect that they would be covered with asbestos, which meant that the volumes' rescue had to be contracted out to an asbestos-removal company. It was painful to see the books in a desperate condition having to wait untouched until the contract was ready. Recalling the experience as "a deeply felt insult to my soul," Library Assistant Wayne Cohen remembers "walking by the library with the same feeling I had as I walked by ruins in foreign lands." In time, every book was cleaned by hand before it was reshelved. We were fortunate that 500,000 other volumes sat in our robotic retrieval system in the east wing, safe and sound--or so we thought at the time.
* The last problem we had to address right away was staff assignments, since we obviously could not accommodate all 80 people in our small trailer operation. In order to bring everyone back to work, most were reassigned to other CSU units for the interim. "It was quite a rewarding experience," lead Technical Services Library Assistant Gina Hsiung says of her stint in the Disabled Students Services Office. "I came away with a new outlook on the technologies being made available for the disabled."
A number worked in the campus information center, a service for which the library took responsibility and the only place from which faculty, students, and the community could receive information about the university. Instructional Support Assistant Margie Roblin remembers "the overwhelming relief, thanks, and amazement that people expressed to be talking to a real person instead of a machine." It was many months before the center was disbanded with the resumption of normal campus operations.
The ultimate aftershock
Then came the greatest blow of all. The more than 10,000 aftershocks had revealed serious problems in the Oviatt's structural soundness. After extensive examination, the engineers pronounced damage to the Oviatt's core (a concrete structure built in 1973) as only cosmetic and easily restored. But the east and west wings, which constituted a steel-frame structure added in 1991, were seriously damaged and would require major renovation.
Systems Administrator Eric Willis describes the engineers' 11th-hour discovery as "typical of the 180-degree turns our plans took from one day to the next." Some 24 hours earlier, he had been "crawling around under the tables, unplugging everything electrical with the hope that power would be restored to the building the next day and we could proceed with restoring services." After considerable discussion, and because we could not presume on the kindness of our library neighbors indefinitely, we decided that the best course of action was to reopen the Oviatt core in time for the fall 1994 semester, which was only 68 days away. However, since the core could not house all our services, we also had to open several temporary facilities.
It's impossible to convey how intensely we worked during that time, as we raced out design layouts and coordinated with construction crews. Nor can I fully relate the thousands of decisions that went into creating library service under such conditions, nor the labor involved in rearranging materials, shelving, and equipment from and around the Oviatt. By late August we had opened four facilities: the Oviatt core; the North Library Annex, a barn converted into technical services and study space; the Lindley Avenue Library Annex, a white plastic dome that housed instructional materials, fine arts, and microforms; and a study hall dome that also provided storage. Exhausted with overwork and stress, we could look with pride on our achievements.
The warp beneath our wings
As soon as we moved into the Oviatt core, we began working with our architect, George Kelly of Fields and Devereaux, on renovating the wings. Unfortunately, the wings of the Oviatt were to have a different destiny. Despite having assured me on several occasions that the wings could be restored, the engineers now determined that the wings could not be saved at all and had to be torn down. This did not surprise many of us; we had observed independently their increasingly sloping floors and widening wall cracks. In this we learned an important lesson: A staffs intimate knowledge of a building from daily exposure can yield important information to engineers. So we went back to the architectural drawing board, and the demolition itself occurred in the summer of 1997.
In the midst of this, we had to move our Technical Services Department to accommodate a unique and profitable opportunity the university got to develop the area in which our converted barn sat. We were forced to move staff and their equipment and materials to a new site in trailers that, unfortunately, were not intended for long-term, extensive use.
Even as the reconstruction began, one more disaster awaited us. It had been a source of pride that we continued to have remote bar-code access to some 500,000 volumes still randomly stored in the devastated wings through our automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS), whose placement inside a concrete box in the east wing had enabled it to weather the earthquake very well. But despite our many warnings to the construction company, the concrete shell of the AS/RS became badly compromised. Water seeped in and mold set into the collection. A contractor was brought in to contain the entire AS/RS, remove the mold, clean the books, and send damaged ones for restoration.
It is ironic that the real damage to the collection came from the reconstruction and not at the moment of the actual earthquake. The cleaning crews, who required considerable supervision, had to be extensively trained by our staff in the use of both the online system and the AS/RS. In the midst of all this, our construction management firm substituted another clean-up company because of cost considerations, sending the project back to square one.
Moreover, we found ourselves providing erratic library service because only certain materials could be released to the public at certain times; different aisles of the AS/RS would be down since construction was still under way in the area. Lastly, there was extensive behind-the-scenes work to determine which materials were beyond hope and whether they could be reacquired or should be removed from the database. The overall mold problem persisted for months and required daily intervention and decision making.
At long last, our long journey to rebuild the Oviatt Library is drawing to a close. We anticipate the wings to be completely open for service by this fall--over 61/2 years after the devastating effects of the earthquake. We have begun gearing up for the move, which is scheduled to commence in mid-April. We Look forward to being under one roof again.
You can go home again
Through these long years, we have lived in the midst of construction and its many daily challenges. The sounds of drilling and hammering, the sight of dirt and debris, the fenced-off areas, the unanticipated losses of power and water, the tripping of fire alarms, and the constant disruption have been our daily fare. We are told that we have made good time--usually the level of destruction that we experienced takes eight years or more to restore. For us, though, we have lived too long in earthquake time, while the rest of the world has long since moved on.
In spite of all our many trials, I'm proud that we were able to resume library services within a month of the earthquake and have provided services continuously regardless of the many challenges of reconstruction. It also gives me pleasure to see the pride of students and faculty in the Oviatt's regaining its former handsome look and place as the centerpiece of the CSU/Northridge campus. As Facilities Manager Carlene Kouri puts it, the library can now "move into the new century refreshed and ready to go."
SUSAN CAROL CURZON is dean of the Oviatt Library at California State University/Northridge.
Disaster recovery at its best:
* Harnesses community resources for needed support.
* Relies on flexible thinking, since nothing ever goes as planned.
* Keeps staff informed and involves them in decision-making.
* Acknowledges the trauma to people's spirits as well as their workplaces.
Through our disaster, we learned a lot. Consequently, there are many things that we would do differently knowing what we know now, including:
1. Roll with the inevitable punches. New information, such as the status of a building, keeps emerging and therefore decisions keep changing. Keep people aware about the volatility of information updates you're receiving to minimize their confusion and frustration over the constant flip-flops.
2. Think before you act. Resist the instinct to put everything back together again as fast as possible. Before making any decisions, lay out a total service framework as if you are creating a library from scratch, so that at every meeting you can consider every aspect. And have a preexisting strategic plan so changes can be made in accordance with already agreed-upon directions. Ironically, although people are exhausted by upheaval during a disaster, they are also more willing to embrace change then.
3. Document everything and save all of the notes and minutes from every meeting. The Federal Emergency Management Authority often conducts an audit after a disaster and you will need to detail what you have done and why. Also take photographs of everything for the library's history. Do not depend upon photographs being shot for FEMA, since they will be inaccessible to you for years.
4. Do a little fundraising. Assign some additional people to your development office while the outside world is still interested in your plight--which, needless to say, is only a small window of time.
5. Don't overly centralize decision-making. While managing the aftermath of a disaster is more hands-on than the day-to-day management of a library, it is still more effective to let people be resourceful and imaginative.
6. Meet regularly with key staff and often with all staff. Communication is probably the single most important key to success during a disaster and helps to sustain everyone's spirit through the months ahead. Establish a phone tree to ensure that information is also being disseminated to those who are unable to report to the library. Provide key staff with cell phones and consider placing fax machines in their homes as an alternative communications channel. One of my most significant memories of the earthquake is coming home from a hard day to several hours of phone calls to update staff.
7. Set up your own public relations/information unit. I was surprised at the number of calls I received from other libraries and the media asking for information about our status. Photos of our library were seen in Tokyo and Paris. Also, distribute press kits for library administrators to keep at work and home.
8. Empathize with people's emotional reactions, and don't judge someone's performance based on their behavior during a disaster. At times of extreme stress, some rise to the occasion with great physical courage and patience while others become frightened and irascible. Have counseling services available. It also helps to talk during meetings about behaviors and fears so everyone realizes that their reactions are not unique.
9. Use professional movers for books, equipment, and furniture whenever possible. It's hard enough to restore services without also engaging in heavy physical labor, except in cases where every available hand must pitch in, such as when rescuing materials from flood or fire.
10. Place security around the library. Theft by strangers begins almost as soon as disaster strikes. Guard every exit, have library staff log people in and out, and record any equipment that needs to be removed. In a disaster, controlling the library's assets should be the first task after securing lives.
11. Be prepared in case disaster strikes again. Store a personal kit containing hard hat, flashlight, face mask, whistle, work gloves, a small knapsack, and hard, flat shoes in every staff member's desk. Keep on hand throughout the library emergency kits with items such as water, nonperishable food, a radio and batteries, and a first-aid kit, as well as emergency library supplies such as large sheets of plastic wrap, buckets, boxes, plastic trash barrels, fans, and walkie-talkies. Place a disaster book in all the major areas of the library, as well as at the homes of key staff, with all the names, addresses, and home phone numbers of library staff and administrators; also include contact information for freeze-drying services, shelving and technology vendors, neighboring libraries, publishers and book jobbers, and the major library news services.
12. Think positive. Most things can be rebuilt and replaced in time. You're going to be in this for the long haul and a positive attitude will help to sustain the energy you'll need for the years ahead.…