From Arson to COVID-19: Learning from Disaster

In 2016, a man set fire to a library in St. Cloud, MN. Allister Chang had an opportunity to speak with Karen Pundsack, director of the Great River Regional Library System, to reflect on what the library learned from the experience that is applicable to its COVID-19 response today. She demonstrates how library resilience transfers from one disaster to another, and in the process, the resilience of libraries as social infrastructure.

Karen Pundsack head shot
Karen Pundsack

In 2016, a man set fire to a library in St. Cloud, MN. I had an opportunity to speak with Karen Pundsack, director of the Great River Regional Library System, to reflect on what the library learned from the experience that is applicable to its COVID-19 response today. She demonstrates how library resilience transfers from one disaster to another, and in the process, the resilience of libraries as social infrastructure.

Allister Chang: What happened in the arson case?

Karen Pundsack: In August 2016, a patron set a book on fire in the library, which caused smoke damage throughout the 115,000 square foot headquarters building in St. Cloud, our largest library. This required us to close the building to the public for about three months. The cleanup involved cleaning all of the library materials in the building and the HVAC system.

AC: What did you do to respond?

KP: We began weekly planning meetings coordinated with the city. The city owns the building, so the insurance claim involved three different carriers. It also required a joint RFP [request for proposals] for the cleaning contract.

Our team learned how to work remotely and from different locations. It helped us understand how to set up telework in effective ways. It also helped to show which positions were needed to take next steps—not just leadership, but also all of IT, custodians.

We reassigned public service staff from St. Cloud to other neighboring libraries. We extended due dates for materials and hold expiration dates. This helped us understand how to adapt the systems in place like work schedules and ILS settings to a changing situation.

AC: What key learnings did you have from the experience?

KP: Resilience and adaptability. We did not have a firm open date for many weeks. The deadlines kept changing. There was a lot of uncertainty, which is very similar to the situation today. We also learned strategies for getting staff assigned to new work that was suitable for their roles. We learned how to track telework. IT was able to use this experience to develop a better internal infrastructure to allow for secure remote access to systems.

We also learned the importance of consistent communication to staff, the public, and the board. Even when there is nothing to say, it's important to say that.

AC: How useful is an emergency plan?

KP: We had a continuing operations plan when the arson occurred, and it was of limited use. For example, the plan addressed a potential fire, but did not include a scenario where the sprinkler system did not go off and the building suffered only smoke damage. It helped us identify key pain points early on—how to handle package delivery if the building wasn't staffed, taking care of the mail, building code access, what building systems needed to be checked even if the library is closed.

We gave our library board regular updates and had special meetings to talk about progress. We began to rely more heavily on social media to get updates out to the public quickly.

 

AC: What policies or practices have you continued?

KP: Regular meetings with the planning group and regular communication to staff. Having a central place for staff to check for information is important. We only post updates for everyone on our staff intranet rather than email. I send regular updates to our board members between meetings. Our board also trusts us to make decisions to benefit our patrons and communities. They understand we will follow our policies but are open to the library trying new ways to serve the public right now.

AC: What advice would you give to other librarians who are working in contexts of uncertainty today?

KP: Focus on the things you can impact today. Worry less about what will happen next month. Prepare, but be flexible. Have a Plan B and C in mind before moving something forward. Communicate what you know when you know it. It's OK not to have all the answers.

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