Online Content Mitigates Disasters

Article ImageLast year, Mother Nature rocked the globe. The world in 2005 had the highest-ever financial losses for weather-related natural disasters. Globally, economic losses will exceed $200 billion and insured losses will be more than $70 billion, according to preliminary estimates released by the Munich Re Foundation. At the local level, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina can either stress libraries and schools or destroy them. While communities always seem to come together at trying times like these and find a way to go on, digital content now provides many organizations with a way to prepare for and contend with devastating events like these.

Located about a half-mile from the beach near Gulfport, Mississippi, the Long Beach Public Library was nearly obliterated by Katrina. The storm surge blew out one entire wall, and the building was subsequently condemned. In response, a group of employees at SirsiDynix—a vendor of information management products and services for libraries—loaded up a van with computers, wireless networking gear, tables, cables, a TV, a fax/printer, a DVD player, etc., and drove from its headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama, down to Long Beach. There, they set up the equipment in a former dry cleaning shop, one of the few places in town that had power and Internet access.

After a disaster, people often naturally congregate at the library, points out Tom Gates, VP of marketing for SirsiDynix and a member of the Long Beach recovery team. "The community library has the reputation of being the place where you can go for information and for free access to the Internet," he says. "In a disaster, information is important." For those who can't make it to community centers like libraries, the Internet often serves as a displaced person's only means of communicating with the outside world and of locating missing family and friends. In fact in some cases, FEMA forms were required to be completed online, leaving many who lacked PCs and Web access looking for alternatives.

Of course, SirsiDynix couldn't rush in with a van and personally help every library in Katrina's wake, but the company did offer free ASP hosting of either Web servers or entire library management systems to a vast number of institutions in the area. Then, as Rita approached, the company sent out emails asking libraries to send them their backups—just in case. Surprisingly, the company's offer had few takers, which they view as a testament to how well prepared most of the libraries in the region were. In anticipation of Katrina, company staff had interviewed Florida librarians who had gone through the terrible 2004 hurricane season and used their lessons-learned to compile a list of recovery FAQs, offering Gulf Coast libraries practical advice on how to get their systems up and running again.

Unfortunately, however, there is little that companies like SirsiDynix can do to mitigate the loss of entire book collections by libraries in the Katrina disaster area. "The key to easier recovery from disasters is to provide more content in electronic form," says Gates, "and as we go forward into the future, having less hard content and more electronic content will make it easier for libraries to cope and recover from disasters."

One potential source of electronic content for disaster-affected libraries and schools is online libraries like that of Questia Media, Inc., which bills itself as the world's largest online library, with 65,000 books and one million articles. "A disaster like a flood wreaks havoc on a physical space," says Troy Williams, Questia founder, president, and CEO. "But if your library isn't in a physical space, if instead it is in a virtual space called the Internet, your library is safe from any local disaster."

Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Questia offered free subscriptions to schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama and 50% discounts to schools elsewhere (in Texas, for example) that had taken in evacuees.

The core of Questia's business is providing research services to college students as individual subscriptions. More recently, the company has also been working with schools to provide more content aimed at K-12 classes. While Questia's electronic content isn't meant to replace school textbooks, it could be a big help following a disaster, says Williams. If a school had all its textbooks swept away by a flood, teachers could use Questia to provide content that would fill in gaps in their lesson plans until new textbooks arrived.

"One clear advantage of digital repositories is the kind of simultaneous access to content that is not possible in the physical world," says Williams. "In a library with only one book you can only have one reader, but with Questia, a single ebook can be read simultaneously by any number of readers. Multiple people get timely, equal access to content."

And with an online repository like Questia, content is everywhere, says Williams. "An online library doesn't have to be down the hall or down the street. It can be right there in your classroom or right there in your bedroom." Or in the case of hurricane victims, it can be right there on a laptop in an evacuee center like the Houston Astrodome or on a PC in a dry cleaning shop.