How do we plan for the unplanned? Before recent occurrences, this question may have felt less urgent. But now, it’s clear that life is coming at us fast and that it helps to be as prepared as we possibly can. On this show, I speak with Miriam Kahn, MLS, MA, PhD, author of Disaster Response and Planning for Libraries.

She shares ways to implement planning even if we don’t know what’s coming around the corner. Miram Kahn on Disaster Recovery and Resumption in the wake of COVID-19:



This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

How do we plan for the unplanned? Before recent occurrences this question may have felt less urgent, but now it’s clear that life is coming at us fast, and that it helps to be as prepared as we possibly can. On this show I speak with Miriam Kahn, author of Disaster Response and Planning for Libraries. She shares ways to implement planning even if we don’t know what’s coming around the corner. This is truly practical information that I know you’re not going to want to miss. Enjoy the show.

Miriam, welcome to the show.

Miriam Kahn:

Thank you so much for asking me to come speak today. I’m so excited about this.


Me too. And I’m really excited, because we’re going to be talking today about planning for the unplanned. As we all know life can, and will, throw just about anything at us. We’re learning that more and more everyday. So, the more we think through potential problems, before needed, the better. 

Question #1: First of all, how can we even begin to develop plans not knowing what the unexpected may look like? 01:21 

Miriam Kahn:

Adriane, you’ve asked such a fantastic question. I’m going to start here with an overarching recommendation that’s going to run through all of my comments today. There are three aspects of planning and response, or disaster responsive planning, that’s usually the order they go in, that you really need to keep in mind.

There’s three major pieces. There’s the people, that’s our staff, and our patrons, but mostly our staff. There’s the building itself, and the things in the building. And then of course, there’s the services that we offer. 

So whenever possible, when we’re even thinking about designing a plan, or thinking about what we’re going to do in response, we want to leverage what’s already out there, see what other people are doing, and then have our plan, and our response echo what other people are doing. We are mimicking one another. We’re not going off on a major tangent that takes us to a more complicated place.

The other thing we want to think about is documenting, What are you doing today, what are other people doing? I’m going to make a recommendation for most people, that you start planning now. We’re in the midst of this crazy, unexpected disaster. You want to write what you’re doing now. You want to keep whatever you write very fluid. You want to keep writing. 

So, yesterday was different from today. Keep some kind of a diary. And then, revise as you go along without being super specific and saying, Well, this is when we have the next pandemic. We’re going to have some other crises that come up. 

So, that’s an overarching series of things that I’m going to say. So to begin, when we plan for the unexpected we want to think about how our organization functions. We want to consider the types of problems we typically encounter, and where and how we go about solving them.

When we have a water leak, when we have a power outage, when we have problematic patrons, we want to think about the kind of issues that occur on a regular basis, and how we deal with them. So while we’re doing that, we want to consider our staff, and our administration, and how they react to a crisis. How do they react to a problematic patron? What do they do, how can they, and do they respond to the situation at hand? What are the staff personalities like? Who’s a take-charge person, and who likes to follow instructions? Who’s desperately standing there saying, Tell me what to do.  And who just takes the bull by the horns and says, This is what we’re going to do, this is how I’m going to solve it, and I’ll take the flack for the decision that I make.

The other thing we want to think about is how we deal with chronic issues like water leaks, that’s always a little disaster, fluctuating Wi-Fi, and internet connections where our patrons or our staff are complaining all the time that the internet isn’t staying stable. 

What do we do about unreliable staff, staff who have all kinds of issues where they’re not coming to work regularly, or they’re not doing their work as well as they could? How does our organization adapt and make the leap between what we’re doing now, and what we could do in an emergency? I think we’re seeing a lot of that these last few months. 

So, if I could leave you with something really important to stick in your mind—don’t reinvent the wheel. There are already plans out there. There’s already advice. There’s policies that we can pick and choose, and we want to make sure that they fit our institution. You may have four people on your staff, and the person who wrote the plan has 400. So, we always want to think about how we can redesign the plan so they’re scalable for us.


Question #2: That makes so much sense. Creating policies that are broad enough to be adapted to changing situations can be helpful, as you mentioned. What kinds of policies can it help to have in place? 05:28 

Miriam Kahn:

You want to start with broad policies and procedures that you can adapt, depending upon the situation. Don’t get too specific. Don’t talk about what to do when a window breaks. Talk about what to do when you have an infrastructure issue, when we have a major storm. Don’t get so specific that the plans aren’t flexible, or that your organization isn’t flexible. For instance, your plan doesn’t need to be 600 pages long. It could be three pages long, and you’ll do just fine. 

The three major policies to consider are: those that affect the staff; the things that affect the building; and how we deliver services and content to our patrons. Here are some examples of things you probably already have, some procedures and policies, tIme off. We already have policies for sick-leave, family medical leave, personal time off, bereavement leave, long-term disability, or leave for an injury or a major illness, somebody who has, God forbid, cancer, or dealing with a sick parent. 

We already have these policies, so think about how you could adapt them, and how we have adapted them for COVID-19. I know when we were speaking earlier I talked about another type of a policy, this one affects the building as well, and that’s when we close for inclement weather. I know you’re based in Utah. I’m based in Ohio, we don’t really have the same types of issues, but we do close. We have libraries that close for flood, or for inclement weather, particularly inclement weather, if it’s snowing or sleeting. 

Do you close early? What does that mean, what does your policy say? Do we close for the day? How do you decide that you’re going to close in the morning, or the night before that you’re going to close the next day? This policy will also affect our staff and access to our building, and of course, access to our collections.

So, let’s think about a normal example. You have a blizzard, or you have a bad snow storm which affects your local staff, the people who live in your town. Well, you could make your staff walk to work, but that might not be such a great idea. So, we’re going to close the building. But, what do you do when you have a patron who lives on the other side of the valley, or on the other side of the mountain and it’s blizzarding there, but it’s not blizzarding where you live? The sun is shining. How do you adapt, letting your staff member take the day off because they have a blizzard, and they can’t get to work?

So, you have those kinds of policies in place that have allowed us to recraft our leave policies so that we’ve adopted them to work from home. We took those policies, and may not have thought about it logically, and when the government said we have to close tomorrow we said, Okay, we’re going to make our staff work from home. We already have policies in place. These policies say we’re going to keep paying them.

These closure, and time off policies have morphed into our work-at-home policies. They might even in the future, work for job sharing policies, when we start to deal with child care, and we need to have our staff go back to work, but maybe they don’t have enough child care. So, we could think about a policy we already have in place and adapt it to the situation in today’s environment.


Question #3: Very nice. If we take a proactive approach to planning for the unplanned, we’re able to make decisions that work best for our organization. How can this help us to show stake-holders we are able to handle recovery measures on our own terms? 09:19 

Miriam Kahn:

Well, handling it on our own terms is always complicated, right? When I think about that I’m usually thinking about it during a major infrastructure issue. So, we’ve had a major flood, perhaps we have a blizzard. We have a major power outage and we need to make sure that we protect our collections, and our buildings. So, it’s important that we have broad policies in place before the crisis. 

So, we’ve already told the Emergency Management Agency and Public Services, our Public Safety Agency we have this plan. We know what we need to do. We’re prepared on our own to board up our building, remove materials from the flooded areas, to put our collections in a safe place, and make sure our safe place is safe for our staff as well.

So, here’s some other things we can put into our policies. List your organization with a Disaster Response Company. I’m thinking about a flood, or a fire, or a water leak, but if you put your name on the list with a Disaster Response Company you’re going to get first dibs as opposed to being at the very bottom of the list. We all know that from our own personal crises, right? When you have a flood in your basement, and you call a company, if you don’t have a contract you’re going to wait, or you’re going to call a lot of companies.

You can have service contracts in place and maintenance contracts in place, so that we can backup our computers, add more telecommunications if we need it, add more equipment, repair our buildings, we can set up temporary locations for our backup servers, or at least know where our data’s going. Is it going to a cloud? Is it going to a remote backup service? And then, how do I access it?

Do I have all of the hardware and software to access the servers and the associated data? If I already have that plan in place when my infrastructure goes down or my IP goes down, and my internet goes down locally, I’m going to be able to shuttle and shift my internet access to a different IP address through another location.

I can also think about reallocating our staff assignments to other duties as assigned. So, I worked in a union environment for a while, that’s a really pesky phrase, other duties as assigned. If you have a union you need to make sure that other duties as assigned are in every single job description, if you don’t want to have a hassle with your union. 

The other thing you want to think about is do you have an alternative space to work from?

Today we’re working from home. Do you have another storefront? Is there a factory in town that’s empty? Is there a warehouse? Is there an office suite that you could take over and put your staff there?

And then really, really important is—you need to have enough insurance. You need to make sure your insurance is enough to cover what you need for at least a short period of time to deal with the disaster, paying your staff salaries, and paying for an alternative location if you’re moving to a location that’s opposed to sending people home and working from home.


Question #4: Excellent things to be thinking about. In addition, what documents do you recommend libraries have in place for the unexpected, things like decision trees or other tools? 12:44 

Miriam Kahn:

That’s always so complicated, what do you need to have? If you don’t have a plan, you might want to go and look at some other peoples’ disaster response plans. It’s really, really important that you put together something that’s bare-bones. Something that says, This is what I’m going to do if something happens. 

So, some types of tools that you might have—you want to have a disaster response team. It really should be a small number of people. Depending upon the size of your institution, you probably want four people on that team. It should be a person from administration, someone from staff, and someone from maintenance or facilities. 

Notice that I left the director off the list. The director has a job already, and that’s to deal with the board, or deal with the president of your institution, other administrators, or even just the insurance company making all of those contacts.

You want to pick a point person for public relations to talk to the media. It’s really important that only one person talk to the media, and you want to set that in place ahead of time. That’s a tool that you could have. You could say, Oh, this person’s really good at media, this person already talks to the newspapers and the radio. This is the group that we want. This is the person that we want.

You need to talk with the treasurer, and put into place a policy if the treasurer is out of town, how are you going to get access to funds? You want a development officer, or a fundraiser. You want to be able to activate that fundraising right away. In the case of a disaster you want to think about, what’s the message your PR person is going to send out? Hey, we need money, we need to be able to support our institution in this crisis.

We want to think about how our staff works with other people. Don’t forget to have an alternative person. Alternates are really, really important because you know, the person who’s really key? That’s the person who’s going to be out of town, going to be on vacation, although that’s not happening these days. But, they might be sick. So, it’s really, really important that we have other people who can handle the job. So, we want to do some cross-training.

You want to set up some basic decision trees. What gets saved? Where do I send my staff? You could say, If the power stays out for four hours, I’m closing the building. If it only stays out for two hours, I’m going to keep my staff in place. If the power company says the power’s going to be out for days, and days then where am I going to send my staff? How are they going to work? Do I have a branch I could send my staff to? So, you could make some basic decision trees that help figure out what we’re going to do about offering our services and having our staff be safe, and keeping our building safe as well. Am I closing the building? Am I keeping it open? What does that mean if I keep my building open, and there’s no power in my building, or no heat? 

When you create these decisions you want to work from the local, or very small area disaster, you want to work your way out. So, a local disaster would be, My power went out in my building. I have a flood in my building. I have a safety issue in my building and I’ve called the police. So, those are the little local things. They affect just me and my building. 

The next one would be a small-scale disaster, or a local disaster that affects my town. And then from there the disasters get wider. Now this one is probably the widest area disaster I’ve ever seen. Previously I would have said it was Hurricane Katrina, or Superstorm Sandy that affected multiple states, multiple types of people and institutions, and all of our public safety, and all of our people, and people living there.

This is even a bigger disaster. It’s something where we need to think about how we take the small plan that affects us and we scale it up. If you plan only for a major global catastrophe you won’t be able to design your plan. Your mind is going to go absolutely numb. So think about, How do we make a plan that works for us, scale-up? You want to try and stay very calm while working on these plans and make sure these policies are in place. And that will help our stakeholders, as well, be confident and secure in our decision-making. And whatever you do, don’t forget to cross-train. Don’t forget to cross-train your staff. So that somebody else can fill in in an emergency. 


Question #5: Sure. What does continuity of service look like if planning is in place before a disaster strikes vs. when it’s not? 17:34 

Miriam Kahn:

That’s a really great question. I think we’ve all experienced that. I would say that in the last couple of months, and certainly in March, we didn’t really ever plan for working from home for every single person in a library, no less.

If it’s pre-planned it means you have procedures in place to flip the switch, to shift from local to remote access for your reference services, for your patron services. A lot of us had to scramble to repoint IP addresses, to make our business services, our reference services available to our patrons, to our staff from home.

You want to be able to shift from working in a physical location to working in a digital location. We’ve already done that. So, we want to document that. Continuity of services for risk managers, and insurance agents means keeping the steady flow of operations shifting from one place to another. I am not going to blink an eye when I turn that light on, when I say, Okay, you’re going home. You can work tomorrow from home. 

We’ve already done this, so let’s document it. How did you shift your catalogue for reserves? How did you point people to the electronic resources? Did you loosen them up? Did you change your licenses or work with your licensing agencies? 

If we have some of those policies in place, if we’ve thought about them ahead of time it makes it so much easier to handle that complete mindshift, I’m not in my office today. I’m not at the library today. I’m working from the library from home today. That’s really, really hard, but the more you set in place the less you feel like you’re scrambling to get everything functioning the way we want them to function.


Question #6: Absolutely. Anything else you’d like to share? 19:40 

Miriam Kahn:

There are already policies and procedures that are out there. There are plans that are out there. So, if you’re looking for policies—What do I do about staffing? How do I handle leave? How do I handle closing the building, public safety, security, all of that? Look at ALA, they have tons of policies, and books about policies. They have webinars and they’re doing that right now. 

If you’re looking for a disaster response plan, NEDCC has a disaster response plan. It’s called dPlan. It’s really intensive. There’s probably 300 pages to the plan. So, it’s way more specific than anyone needs to write a plan. But think about the questions they ask you. It’s freely available on their website. Think about what they have in place, and what you can adapt to your library, depending upon the size of your institution. Take the pieces and parts that you need. ARMA, which is a records management association, the Special Library Association, they will have plans. They will have advice on how to write on how to write a disaster response plan.

Talk to your public safety people. Talk to the Emergency Management Agency in your community. Talk to the people in public health, maybe you have a public health school that can help you deal with mental crises, or disease, or if you think you have an infection in your building. They are great to go to. They are great to look at, for the types of information that you want.

I also have written several books on disaster response, and I’ve made those links available to you that go along with the podcast. So, I really, really want to thank you for asking me all these questions about planning for the unexpected because, Adriane, you’ve given me the opportunity to talk about a topic that I’ve been writing about for over thirty years.

Planning is so important for the survival of our institutions and our profession, and for our society. If we think about it, we are in the midst of a disaster. We’re really starting to resume services. But, one of the things that’s really sad is that a lot of people don’t write a plan until after the disaster strikes. And that’s where we’re at. We have the disaster, we made our plans, kind of by the seat of our pants. So now is the time, in the midst of this pandemic, in the midst of this emergency to document what you’ve done to keep your community aware of what you are doing, what you did, and how you provided the services for your community, for your patrons. 

Think about how you kept your staff safe. Craft simple, generic policies and procedures, and you have a plan, and that plan is going to take you into the future no matter what kind of disaster we face next week, next month, next year. Because, you know what? There’s going to be another one, and that’s really sad to say, but there’s going to be another disaster and we’re going to have to deal with that one, too.


Question #7: Right. It’s hard to think about but, we’re so glad to be able to draw from your expertise in this area. Do you have any favorite leadership books or resources you’d like to share, and why? 22:56 

Miriam Kahn:

Yes. I was kind of surprised when I got the question. I had to sit back and think for a minute because there’s lots of books. I’ve read so many books on self-help, and leadership. But, I have three. 

The first two are classics, you’re going to laugh but, Who Moved My Cheese, and One Minute for Myself by Spencer Johnson are classics. They’re about a half an inch thick. They’re great. They’re to the point, applicable for any job, any point in your career, any situation in your life, and they still work today. So, Who Moved My Cheese is all about being adaptable and being willing to go where the cheese goes and not just keep going to the cheese, but going looking for the cheese, changing yourself and being willing to change and adapt to a new environment.

And One Minute for Myself, that’s gosh, I really need to take a breath. I think that it’s really important that we’re doing both. Both books really help us be better leaders and help our staff and ourselves move into those future positions and deal with crises.

The other book I’ve been reading this past year is called, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport. So, this is actually his third book. He writes all about controlling digital fatigue and eliminating the term, multitasking. Because we don’t multitask, we do serial monotasking, and we break up our lives, and our trains of thought when we multitask, because you actually can’t do that. Nor, can a computer, by the way.

But we learn a lot from Newport. We learn a little bit about meditating. We learn a little bit about turning off the phone, turning off the computer. And, he also reminds us to take a break, forget about the world out there, and sit for a few minutes and just be quiet.


Question #8: Miriam, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 24:55 

Miriam Kahn:

I’ve been a librarian for almost forty years. I’ve worked in almost every aspect of the profession, and I’ve seen so many changes and innovations. This is probably the most dramatic one, but I have seen this. This has been part of my life. 

It’s different from being a professional librarian to what libraries mean to me. So, they are a place where I go, where I can satisfy my curiosity and learn new things. Libraries contain resources through which I can explore the world past and present, the imaginary worlds that are out there. It’s a place to take a break. Libraries bring light and understanding to the world, to our crazy confusing world. Because without them, the world is a really dark place, there’s not a place where we can go. No matter what library I’ve visited I’ve always felt welcome and sheltered and safe, particularly knowing that we librarians share of our passion to help provide access to information, to share what we know, what our collections contain to anybody who needs and asks.

I’m going to take a deep breath here because that got really heavy. So, if you ever have an opportunity to see my house, you’d know it’s a home filled with books. It’s a library that shelters me and sustains me, that’s what libraries are. They are a place that sustains us all.


That’s marvelous. Thank you so much for sharing that with me, and thank you for sharing with all of us today on how to basically plan for the unplanned. It’s very helpful. I appreciate you being here.

Miriam Kahn:

It’s been a pleasure, thank you, Adriane.

Listeners, if you would like to support this content and more like it you could become a patron at Thank you for your help.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.