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Hale Library Blog

Category: Interviews

Camila Alire: The library world’s “disaster queen”

The Hale Library fire was unprecedented. Even after the smoke cleared and K-State Libraries’ employees went back to work, it can still be difficult to comprehend the scale of the damage.

“We’ve got 1.2 million volumes that need to be restored and we’ve taken the interior of the library down to the studs,” Lori Goetsch, Dean of K-State Libraries, said. “It’s very significant. That we know of, there is not an academic library in the United States that has experienced devastation at this scale.

At the July 18 K-State Libraries all-staff meeting in Leadership Studies’ Forum Hall, we turned to Camila Alire, a retired library Dean from Colorado State University (CSU) and the University of New Mexico (UNM), for perspective. Alire is known as “the disaster queen,” having been through not one, but three library crises. She has literally written a book on disaster, “Library Disaster Planning and Recovery Handbook.” In her retirement, she acts as a consultant for libraries who experience similar setbacks.

A headshot of a women with short brown hair, brown round glasses and a green button up shirt.
Dr. Camila Alire was the Dean of Libraries at Colorado State University and University of New Mexico. Courtesy of American Library Association.

“Your disaster is extremely hard,” Alire said. “Not only did you have fire, but also you had the water damage. It is going to take you a long time to be back whole again, but I would tell you that this, too, shall pass.”

Goetsch asked Alire to talk to the K-State Libraries’ staff as we consider our future as a library and think about what we can expect during the recovery process. Her hope was that talking about the disasters she has experienced would help give staff members perspective on how to act and react.

A red book cover that reads Library Disaster Planning and Recovery.
Library Disaster Planning and Recovery Handbook written and edited by Alire.

“We have all been through a stressful ordeal and there is a lot of uncertainty with that,” Goetsch said. “I invited Camila to our staff meeting to help them understand what we might go through in the next few years.”

On July 28, 1997, just nine days after Alire started her job as Dean of CSU Libraries, Fort Collins experienced major flooding from the Cache La Poudre River. The entire city was affected, but the library was the campus building that was hit the worst.

In only four hours, they received six inches of rain. The water flowed quickly at 5,000 cubic feet per minute and put extreme pressure on the outside library wall. This pressure broke an eight-foot hole in the wall and flooded the entire basement, damaging and submerging over half a million volumes.

A giant hole is in the side of a tan building.
The pressure of the water up against the building caused a hole in the wall of the library.

While students were locking up the library that night, they went down to the lowest level to check for any remaining patrons, and that was when they heard a crack. They were aware enough to know that the sound was out of place, so they ran back up the stairs. Seconds later thousands of gallons of water poured into the basement, just as they reached the landing. It was the violent flow of the rushing water that did the most damage to the basement. If the water had been stagnant, the flood would not have been as destructive.

“Every bound volume that was down there [was] damaged,” Alire said. “The UFOs (unidentified floating objects) were entirely thrown out.”

A dark room with orange book shelves tipped over.
The rushing water caused a lot of damage to the basement of CSU Library.

A few years later, Alire became Dean of Libraries at UNM. During winter break, on Dec. 24, 2004, a pipe burst in the Science and Engineering Library. There was water damage throughout the entire building and all 300,000 volumes had to be packed out. Luckily, they got to the damage quickly and were up and running a few months later.

“The engineering library was the easiest,” Alire said. “Everything went smoothly, the consultant that they hired to come in was easy to work with, everyone got along, and it was excellent.”

She also commented that it was fortuitous that the flooding happened during a semester break: “Luckily for us—and I think this is probably an advantage when it happened [at Hale]—is you don’t have … a majority of the students and faculty here on campus in the summer,” Alire said.

Finally, on April 30, 2006, Alire faced her last crisis: A major fire in UNM’s Zimmerman Library. This was an entirely different disaster for her to deal with and most similar to what Hale Library experienced. In this case, arson destroyed 28,000 volumes and 60,000 square feet of the building. In total, soot and smoke damage covered 242,752 square feet. The heat was so intense that it melted metal on the bookshelves, but fortunately, a lot of books were salvaged.

Brown bookshelves lean to the right with books still in them.
The heat of the fire was so intense that it melted the metal on the bookshelves.

The difference between her three disasters and the fire at Hale was the magnitude. In every event Alire experienced, the libraries were open to the public within a matter of months. Hale Library’s recovery and renovation process might take up to two years to be completely functioning.

“Dean Alire really gave some sage advice on how to get through a major crisis,” Laurel Littrell, planning and assessment librarian, said. “At the same time, it also put our situation in perspective. Even though she’s the country’s foremost expert on library disasters, none of her institutions’ experiences compare to the scope of what happened in Hale Library, especially in terms of how long the building will be closed.”

Alire preached the message that, although this disaster is difficult now, there are silver linings. In our case, Hale was going to be under renovation for the first floor, but now we have the opportunity to renovate all four floors, making the entire building better for students, staff, and faculty

Kathryn Talbot: Master of disaster

Kathryn Talbot, K-State Libraries’ preservation coordinator, was at home when she received the call about the Hale Library fire on May 22.

“This person kept saying, ‘There was a fire, blah, blah,’” Talbot said. “I literally almost went, ‘I think you have the wrong number,’ before it dawned on me: This is Michelle from work.”

After that call from Michelle Turvey-Welch, the Libraries’ head of metadata and preservation, Talbot came back to campus feeling relatively calm.

“Driving up you didn’t see smoke, so I thought, ‘It can’t be that bad.’”

But when the firefighters were still working four hours later, Talbot knew that she needed to ask Turvey-Welch for permission to call companies that manage large-scale emergency recovery and restoration.

An aerial view of Hale Library surrounded by electric generators and three Belfor semi trailers.
More than 200 BELFOR Property Restoration employees have been working on the Hale Library recovery effort for almost eight weeks. June 21.

“We were preregistered with two companies that specialize in cleaning up after emergencies like hurricanes and tornadoes,” Talbot said. “So I called to say, ‘I think we might need your assistance.’ After four hours I knew it really was that bad.”

As K-State Libraries’ disaster team lead, it’s Talbot’s job to prepare the organization’s employees for the unexpected and to know whom to call in an emergency. By preregistering with disaster recovery companies, Talbot insured that K-State Libraries would be a priority client in case of a large-scale crisis. For example, in the instance of a tornado that affects multiple organizations, the disaster recovery company helps preregistered clients first.

That was only one element of the team’s preparation, though. Every office was supplied with one of the team’s red “disaster plan” binders, and they stocked strategic points throughout the building with emergency bins and supplies.

In a dimly lit room, the reflection of large leaded glass windows is visible in water pooled on the carpet.
Hale Library’s Great Room. May 24.

“The disaster plan is any library’s bible for how to care for the collection during a time of crisis,” Lori Goetsch, Dean of Libraries, said. “I’m confident that the damage in Hale Library would have been so much more extreme if it weren’t for Kathryn, Michelle, and a really excellent disaster plan.”

Once Talbot had made contact with BELFOR Property Restoration, she also called the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), which has a round-the-clock response line.

“I wanted their help in thinking through the situation and knowing which questions to ask the next day,” Talbot said.

Seeing the aftermath
In the following hours, as the extent of the damage became apparent, Talbot had plenty of questions, but answers were in short supply. She described her experience as she walked into Hale Library for the first time post-fire on Friday, May 25.

Woman wearing white hard hat, ventilation mask and neon orange emergency vest works by flashlight and pulls a large red book off of a bookshelf.
Talbot at work in the stacks. July 5.

“It was really super dark, and I couldn’t believe at the time they had you put on boots,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why am I putting on galoshes?’ Then, as you walked in the back door, you instantly step into water. It’s like, ‘Why is there water in the mail room? That’s kind of weird.’ … And it was dark and intensely smoky. I figured [water and smoke would be] in the Great Room, but not everywhere.”

“We went up all five floors and four of them had water. I knew most of the collection would have to be moved. There was no way that our staff could do that on our own. There was no electricity and … we had tiny LED lights. It was way creepy.”

Talbot went through the building with Belfor staff members who specialize in handling collections and documents after an emergency. They helped prioritize which areas of Hale Library would be addressed first: Room 117 on Hale Library’s first floor suffered the most water damage and the books had to be packed out right away.

By this point, it was Memorial Day weekend, and it became increasingly difficult to contact vendors and arrange supplies. In order to have enough boxes on hand, Belfor’s team bought all of the boxes in stock at Home Depot, Menards, U-Haul and Lowe’s in Manhattan, Topeka and Salina. [Read more about how they recovered wet books.]

Large cardboard boxes marked with call number ranges, shelf rows and ranges are stacked three high and four across.
Talbot, Turvey-Welch and other employees worked to capture the call number ranges on every shelf of every book case in Hale Library. They were written on corresponding boxes and entered into spreadsheets so there is a controlling guide that will help her team keep the 1.2 million volumes in order.

Today, a little more than eight weeks post-fire, Talbot cites Turvey-Welch’s constant support and non-stop work ethic for helping her get past each new unexpected challenge. She also praises the Belfor crew for helping her wrap her head around the massive scale of the project

“They’ve been through this before,” she said. “I’m like, ‘What am I not thinking of? … What do you need in order to do what you need to do?’ My dealings with their team have been highly collaborative.”

Past experience
When the Libraries aren’t in crisis, Talbot’s job looks much different. Typically, her main job duties include managing digital preservation and supervising all staff that handle aspects of physically moving books: shifting the collections from one part of the library to another, reshelving books returned by patrons, and storing and circulating books that are located offsite at the Library Annex. She also supervises the care of general circulating collections, including binding and preservation lab activities.

These days, Talbot has a desk in Unger Tower, but she doesn’t spend much time there.

“Every morning I visit Hale at about 7:40 and I do my rounds with my environmental control, I take pictures or I go, ‘Huh. I wonder why that’s like that,’” Talbot said. “I come out, upload the environmental data and send that on, maybe do some troubleshooting. It just depends on the day. It’s not like the early panicky weeks where you’ve got to react right away with some decision. It’s more like, ‘Okay, let’s think this through, because we’ve got 24 minutes to live in the situation.’”

Woman wearing white hard hat, ventilation mask and neon orange emergency vest works by flashlight and pulls a large red book off of a bookshelf.
Talbot at work in the stacks. July 5. 

“I would say about a couple weeks ago I stopped waking up in the middle of the night, so I’m either letting it go or I’m just dealing with it better. I think we’re in a better place. It sounds like by the end of August we’ll have everything out of the building. Even if it’s not cleaned, it will be in a better environment than what it is now.”

“I think another anxiety will be when we’re ready to go back,” Talbot said. “The integration … really, I haven’t mentally wrapped my brain around that. There will be a lot of collection decisions that need to be made.”

And is she considering a career change after everything she’s been through in the last two months and the many challenges ahead for renovating Hale Library?

“No,” she said, laughing. “I’m not.”

Making an insurance claim? First, count everything.

If you were told to inventory the contents of your house, apartment, office or dorm room, where would you start? How many total items would be on your list?

In order to file an insurance claim after the May 22 fire, the K-State Libraries administration has been managing that overwhelming task. Roberta Johnson, director of administrative and IT services, walked us through the process of inventorying a building that’s bigger than nine football fields.

Goetsch, Mason, and Johnson, all wearing orange emergency vests and hardhats, stand in a partially demo'd doorway.
From left, Lori Goetsch, dean of Libraries, April Mason, then-provost, and Roberta Johnson, director of administrative and IT services, in Hale Library. June 11, 2018.

Johnson explained a series of steps have to be completed before the insurance company will provide financial compensation. Several tasks have been finalized.

First, K-State’s insurance company subcontracted with an insurance adjuster (in this case, Crawford & Company). Crawford & Company will work closely with Belfor, the recovery and restoration company, in determining the extent of the damage that was a result of the fire and the subsequent water exposure.

Before that happens, though, the entire contents of the building had to be inventoried and a determination made as to what was or was not salvageable, so Crawford & Company subcontracted with two more organizations. RCF Salvage inventoried all fixtures, furniture, and equipment (FFE) in the building, and Envista Forensics inventoried technology, which included everything from computers to the digital displays and checkout machines.

A long row of white metal lighting fixtures lies on the concrete floor.
Crews removed and inventoried lighting fixtures. June 28, 2018.

“I feel like I have nine million people to deal with,” she joked. “At one point there were 15 different agencies in the building, companies that have come from all over the country, Georgia, Indiana, Texas … to work on this project.”

The whole inventory process started on May 28, just six days after the fire. The bulk of the work was completed in about three weeks.

Either Johnson or K-State Libraries’ building manager, Robin Brown, walked through Hale Library with RCF Salvage’s staff to verify every single item that was inventoried. They signed what Johnson said felt like reams of carbon paper in the process, and the resulting 367 page FFE inventory included 7,749 line items. In many cases, just one of those lines represented more than one thing; for example, one entry might be a record of 35 wooden chairs.

Chairs on Hale Library’s first floor. June 11, 2018.

Envista Forensics produced a second inventory report that included approximately 1,970 pieces of technology.

“Keep in mind that almost all of this was done by flashlight because there was no power in the building,” Johnson said. “We did have temporary lighting toward the end, but I just thought these were the world’s worst conditions for the work. They sifted through the contents of every office, cubicle and storage space. And yet they were still so professional. I’ve been amazed.”

An employee's personal belongings, plastic sheeting, and debris litter an office cubicle.
Office cubicles in the information technology area on second floor were especially hard-hit with water damage. June 11, 2018. 

So what happens next?

“This is a 550,000-square-foot building; there are a lot of nooks and crannies,” Johnson said. “We’re still coming across items, and occasionally we have to go back to the inventory to make sure they’ve been accounted for. It will take time to clear up any discrepancies.”

Only once the loose ends are tied up can the adjuster valuate the inventory and provide a dollar amount to the insurance company.

“Even once the inventory process is finalized, we still don’t have estimates about the structural damage itself,” Johnson said. “That’s an entirely separate process. And until we have that piece in addition to the inventory of the building’s contents, there won’t be a total damage estimate.”

In the meantime, Johnson says she does have some idea of what the largest losses will be in terms of expense.

“The servers in the basement are among the most expensive single items,” Johnson said.

Other big ticket items include the fixtures: cubicle walls, desks and workstations.

Soft seating, wooden chairs, and office chairs stretch out in long lines. During the inventorying process, first floor was used as a holding area for furniture and boxes of books. June 11, 2018. 

“Right now they’ve carted out more than 100 industrial-sized dumpsters full of fixtures and furniture, and they’re not done yet,” Johnson said. “The loss is massive.”

Johnson is highly pragmatic about the whole process, though.

“We had no injuries,” she said. “When you think about the extent of what happened, that’s the most important thing. No injuries. I’m so grateful for that.”

Employee Possessions

Of course, there are more than 100 K-State Libraries and IT Services employees who had offices and workstations in Hale Library, and most had personal items at their desks – everything from art to clothes to their own technology. An inventory of those items was compiled separately, and employees will make claims to the insurance agency at a later date.

Among some staff members, there’s a running bet as to whose office held the most personal items. Two of the academic services librarians, Melia Fritch and Cindy Logan, are the odds-on-favorites, so we asked them about their experience.

“There was such a sense of disbelief when we learned our office was a loss,” Logan said. “We have had so many fire alarm situations where nothing was damaged, I just thought they had to be wrong … there was no way there was that much damage. It took probably a week before the news really set in.”

A group of twelve people dons orange emergency vests, hard hats and respirators.
K-State Libraries faculty and staff members prepare to enter Hale Library. May 30.

On May 30, Fritch, Logan and their Hale Library co-workers were allowed in the building for the first time to retrieve any personal belongings that were salvageable.

“It was pretty surreal visiting the office for the first time after the fire,” Fritch said. “We walked through with all the safety gear on and carrying flashlights, and it was so hot. The most disturbing thing was going into to our office and feeling like FEMA had been through since there were these orange spray-painted words like “demo” all over the walls. That was weird.”

Orange spray paint on a yellow wall reads "Demo to top" and "DMO"
Belfor crews indicated with spray paint which sections of drywall had to be removed. May 30. 

Fritch and Logan’s second floor office was packed with art, books, photos and objects. They both say they surround themselves with things that remind them of people they love, books about subjects they’re passionate about or quotes that express core beliefs.

“What I really miss is the artwork that my son had done throughout the years that I had hanging up,” Fritch said. “I was super happy that some of Tyler’s artwork was safe and I could take it, along with some photos I really wanted. Of course, I miss the Keurig, too—ha!—but the material objects, the decorations, the computer, the chair, books … those can be replaced.”

A video of Melia Fritch and Cindy Logan’s office taken shortly before the fire. 

The ceiling, carpet and part of the drywall have been removed from this empty office space.
All offices on the west end of the second floor, including Fritch and Logan’s, have been demoed. June 26, 2018. 

Logan, who laughingly admits to something of an office supply addiction, agreed, and added that she looks forward to the day when they get to move into a new space.

“For now, I miss having my 20 million different markers, highlighters, pens, notebooks and types of Post-it notes,” she said. “But I look forward to our new bright and shiny offices and making them feel like home once the building has been renovated. My office reflects me, and I will continue to fill it with things I love and from the people who love me.”