Week 8 Blog: Chaos and Disaster Planning



Chaos (Noun): “the inherent unpredictability in the behavior of a complex natural system”[1]


Chaos is inherent in all we do. Chaos theory in mathematics, Clauswitzian friction in war, and the field of Quantum Chaos in physics are testaments to the effects of unaccountable variables on even the most solid foundations of human understanding. In the archival world, chaos is countered thorough disaster planning. Chaos–such as a fire in a section of the archives, a pest infestation, or instance of flooding—that is planned for in contingency scenarios and rehearsed, ceases to be chaos. Archives that plan for and rehearse responses to the most common disasters that befall archives avoid unnecessary calamity. An important case study for archival disaster planning has been hurricane Katrina. The experience has given several lessons in avoidable chaos according to NYU graduate Kara Van Malssen.[2] These lessons include effective disaster planning, external recovery services, and risk of cultural collapse as a result of a disaster. After the hurricane, standard lines of communication that had been incorporated into disaster plans within ravaged areas ceased to be operational, “Don’t neglect to establish every possible line of communication.” Not only were these lines of communication severed, but archives lacked the resources for recovery and effective networks to accomplish timely recovery efforts, “Always be sure that your library, archive, or department within a larger organization has discussed emergency preparedness plans with the administration.” Finally, the largest disaster to the archives effected by Katrina may be the loss of the community which surrounded them, “The reductions in staff size and funding for both recovery and day-to-day operations are possibly even larger a threat to many institutions and collections than the hurricane itself.”[3] However, you will never avoid chaos. It is the sprinkler system with a 99% successful operation rate that fails at the time it’s needed; the most unlikely scenario can occur for the simple reason that even the statistically best-prepared institution is at the mercy of probability. All an institution can do is understand the risks. Studying the disasters that befall similar institutions or raw data on the likelihood of a disaster on institutions could be one way to accomplish this. Archivists who study past calamities, who weigh the probability of various disaster, and plan with cost and risk aversion in mind will be more likely to avoid avoidable chaos. But chaos will always occur, prepare for the worst and hope for the best .





[1] Merriam-Webster. “Definition of Chaos.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chaos.

[2] Van Malssen, Kara. “Disaster Planning and Recovery: Post-Katrina Lessons for Mixed Media Collections.” http://www.nyu.edu/tisch/preservation/research/disaster/06ala-talks/talk_vanmalssen.shtml.

[3] Ibid.


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