Beyond the Web: The Potential Uses of HTML in Library Disaster Control Planning

During a lifelong library career, 2 out of 5 librarians will face a major disaster in their library. Emma Blagg describes the design and evaluation of a HTML-based disaster control plan, used to provide the counter measures taken to minimise the effects of such a disaster.

A disaster control plan for the Pilkington library was created using HTML to link existing documentation. The plan was then evaluated by both students and library staff in order to assess the usefulness of a disaster control plan in this format. It was hoped that using hypertext would create a structured, easily accessible information resource. The resulting hypertext system was called "Pilkplan". In this article, the positive aspects and problems of using HTML in this area of library management are considered as well as feedback from users.

This paper is based on an MSc dissertation at Loughborough University, undertaken in co-operation with the Pilkington Library at Loughborough University.

What is Disaster Control planning?

A disaster is "an occurrence that causes death or destruction" [1]. Disasters in libraries have many causes, from the dramatic: arson, lightning and earthquakes to the mundane: electrical faults and burst pipes. A disaster control plan is the written documentation that records the countermeasures taken against an event which is wholly unexpected and damages the collections of an institution. It is a document which all organisations, not just libraries, should have.

Disaster Control Planning has not been a major concern in British academic libraries until relatively recently. Indeed, a study carried out in 1985 showed that only 6.6 percent of libraries had a Disaster Control Plan [2]. By 1993, 37 percent of academic libraries had a Disaster Control Plan, written or otherwise [3]. The most obvious reason for the increased awareness is the publicity surrounding major library disasters [4]. The most famous is that of the flooding in Florence in November 1966. The level of the river Arno rose 16 feet and swept through the city at 40 miles per hour. Much of Italy's heritage material was damaged or completely destroyed. So devastating was this disaster that it has been viewed as the event which "ultimately changed the attitude of many librarians around the world" [5]. There have been many more recent disasters such as the Los Angeles Public Library fire [6] and the fire at the Academy of Sciences Library in Leningrad [7]. Also figures for the US [8] show that a librarian has a 2 in 5 chance of participating in a major disaster in a 40 year career.

Why should you have a disaster control plan?
There are many reasons why an organisation should have a Disaster Control Plan. These include:

  • Arrangements can be made before any incident and they can be thought through to ensure a swift and effective reaction. In a disaster deterioration of items can occur rapidly, a quick reaction will minimise this.
  • The production of a formal plan should help to convince management that a plan is necessary and needs adequate resourcing to minimise the effects on the whole organisation.
  • The presence of a plan with detailed procedures will help reinforce the importance of the whole issue of Disaster Control Planning to all members of staff. The written plan will also be useful in training.

The various parts of a disaster control plan contain much material which overlaps with other sections and can result in repetition throughout a document; hypertext links can therefore be useful in minimising this. In addition, plans are often accompanied by a variety of other sources of information such as sample disaster sheets and floor plans which would be more easily referred to in a hypertext document.

A disaster control plan describes the counter measures that can be taken to minimise the effects of a disaster, but "too often contingency plans are ring-binders that gather dust in some bottom drawer" [9]. It was hoped that by using hypertext, awareness of both the plan's importance and existence would be raised, particularly if it could be made available on the library's network or intranet. Problems were foreseen regarding the usefulness of a disaster control plan which is only viewable with a web browser on a PC.

What Is Hypertext?

The idea of hypertext has been around since Vannevar Bush wrote his famous article [10], but its proliferation was enabled by the increase in powerful PCs and the creation of the WWW at CERN. The simplest definition of hypertext [11] is that it consists of chunks, or nodes of information and the links between them. Using this definition any text with references would be included. The text and the one referred to are the 'nodes' and the reference forms the link. This is the intellectual basis of hypertext. What distinguishes hypertext from printed text is that the links are "machine-supported" [12]. When a link is selected, movement between the two nodes takes place automatically. Hypertext allows the nodes to be any size and there are no limits on what can be linked to what. A node can consist of text, graphics, film or sounds.

Features of hypertext

It was Bush who originally suggested that hypertext mimics the mind because it is 'natural' and so should be easy to use [13]. The issue of how valuable hypertext is, when compared with paper, in learning is complex and has been discussed in the literature [14] [15].

Navigation and Hypertext
"The user's freedom, to browse, navigate and take part in a journey or voyage of discovery at will, is the most distinguishing feature of hypertext" [16] but, conversely, is it also "the single greatest difficulty for users of hypertext" [17]. Lack of standardisation within and between hypertext systems may be at least partially responsible. The Internet and its conventions are likely to be helpful in combating this.

Hypertext and Learning
Hypertext offers different ways of presenting information. It can be as effective as paper formats in learning, provided that users have definite aims and do not simply browse the document aimlessly [18].

Information Storage and Retrieval
Electronic texts generally have the following useful characteristics:

  • Ease of access: many readers can access the same text immediately and simultaneously via a network.
  • Lengthy texts can be easily searched and manipulated, and included in other documents.
  • Readers can generally be confident that they are reading the most recent version of a document.

Structure of the Document
Hypertext can have many advantages in structuring information contained within a document. Ted Nelson envisaged that ideas can be expressed with less overlap [19] and duplication as the same pieces of text can be referenced from several different places. The organisation of information within a document is much more flexible, both hierarchical and non-hierarchical organisations can be imposed on unstructured information, there is even scope for multiple hierarchies to organise the same information. Conklin considers these points in greater depth [20].

Creating Pilkplan

The Pilkington Library's disaster control plan was in the early stages of planning when this dissertation began. Some documentation had already been produced. This included a list of the aims of the plan, details of the insurance cover, various pieces of safety information and details of how to handle damaged material.

The aim of Pilkplan was to create an information resource which would be capable of collecting together different forms of information and which would make it easy to cross refer between documents. It was also hoped that it would be easier to link together material such as sources of further information and contact details of other organisations such as specialist disaster recovery firms. Another aim of Pilkplan was to raise the profile of disaster control planning, at least partially, by providing an easy to use resource for consultation by all members of staff which outlines procedures for particular situations, including reporting faults. Floorplans were created using image maps, where users can click on a specific area, such as short loan, and go to an information page about it.


An evaluation was conducted with staff and students at Loughborough University. They all completed evaluation forms containing a questionnaire and a list of questions to be answered using Pilkplan.

Users felt navigation was relatively easy as many links were included in ways that are used frequently on the Web. As one user noted, it was difficult to estimate how much the ease with which she navigated Pilkplan was due to her familiarity with other hypertext documents. The fact that this group of WWW literate users had so few problems with navigation could suggest that with increasing familiarity with the WWW and hypertext in general this potential problem will become less significant. This evaluation suggests that as conventions have developed in HTML documents, navigation has become easier.

User feedback

  • Users suggested the inclusion of a search engine, which has no parallel in paper formats.
  • The structure of information should be made more user friendly, including FAQs.
  • Eight out of the nine users thought that the links mostly lead them to where they expected to be. This supports the idea that, for these WWW literate users at least, navigation is not a big problem.
  • Use of the 'find' option also increases information retrieval capacity; a feature which has no paper-based parallel.
  • Repetition of information caused some problems. Using HTML to link to the same information in different parts of the document avoids this and the information only needs to be updated once. Surprisingly users seemed to like the fact that there was more than one way of finding the same information.
  • Users didn't seem to mind scrolling through text to find information, and they suggested that on the contents page descriptions were made longer and more detailed.
  • All the users were very positive about the floorplans. This indicates that the use of graphics to show information is one of the most important features of using a HTML plan. Problems include active maps not working on earlier versions of Netscape and time taken to load.
  • Users like the use of graphics and other ways to differentiate between pages.

Hypertext or paper?

User's were asked if they prefer paper-based or hypertext documents. All the student users said that they preferred paper but three of the four library staff preferred hypertext documents. The six users who preferred paper documents gave a variety of reasons for this:

  • Paper documents are portable.
  • There is no need to wait for graphics to load.
  • Browsing is easier in a paper document.
  • Computer screens cause eye strain.
  • It is easier to take in the scope of a paper document and be sure that you haven't missed out any information.
  • It is easier to make notes on paper based documents
  • Paper documents are easier to use for demonstration purposes as they are available immediately; there is no time required for loading.

The three users who preferred hypertext gave the following reasons:

  • Hypertext documents are available on-line so are much quicker to find; a book has to be found on a shelf.
  • Searching is quicker with hypertext than looking through an index.
  • Printing from on-line documents is easy.
  • Hypertext is easier to amend and update than paper.
  • Hypertext is convenient for users who are using a PC all day.
  • It is easier to create and store back-up copies of hypertext documents.

The different opinions of these two groups of users is related to the reason for consulting the document. The users who prefer hypertext tend to require quick answers to questions and do not need to look at all the text. The paper preferring users wanted to browse through information to make sure they have covered it all. It seems that hypertext documents are viewed as being quicker to use, whereas paper is more convenient for browsing, particularly of long sections of text. One hypertext preferring user wrote that in spite of his overall preference, his choice depended mainly on what he wanted a document for. He also felt that few documents get much added value by being in a hypertext form.

Advantages of hypertext

All the users felt that in some cases hypertext is more useful than paper. The advantages were seen to be:

  • Hypertext allows documents to be linked together which allows important points to be followed without using an index.
  • Hypertext makes moving around documents easier.
  • Hypertext avoids the limitations of a linear structure.
  • A well designed hypertext document can allow the selection of relevant material from a large document.
  • Graphics, such as the floorplans, make information more memorable.
  • Documents referenced may only be a click away.

Potential uses

  • The WWW is now used by many people and full advantage can be gained by using a system that people are already familiar with.
  • Plans often have a large amount of information, this gives an easy way of looking at just an overview without overfacing the reader.
  • HTML is very simple to learn, impressive results are easily and rapidly achievable, hence staff training time will be reduced.
  • Updating will also be cheaper which will encourage regular changes to be made, increasing the currency of the information in the plan.
  • The structural emphasis was thought to be helpful in planning: HTML makes it easy to include areas of a disaster control plan which are incomplete and make additions.
  • An HTML plan can be put online which allows a number of people to have access in order to edit it.
  • Cross referencing is easier with hypertext.
  • HTML is a universally recognised system which maximises transferability between different software.
  • Staff can more easily dip into Pilkplan and find information relevant to themselves.
  • Including the phone numbers of people to be contacted in the event of a disaster can be a problem in a published document. With HTML, passwords can be implemented, or access restricted to an intranet.
  • It is possible to link to other reference materials such as extensive safety information, and information such as annual expenditure and the costs of books.
  • One very useful feature of a disaster control plan being written in HTML is that it is possible to make links to references available on the web and even to books held in the local library.
  • A big advantage of using HTML is that active maps can be included which makes it easier to present detailed information in a more interesting way.

It is vital that a disaster control plan contains up-to-date, detailed information from a variety of sources in order to be effective. HTML can provide an helpful way of presenting what can be a complex document in a more easily used and unusual way. At the very least this will help to raise the profile of the plan itself and is likely to be more effective in training and updating.


[1] Hanks, Patrick, ed. The Collin's concise dictionary of the English Language. London: Collins, 1988, p. 319.

[2] Anderson, Hazel & John E. McIntyre. Planning manual for disaster control in Scottish libraries and record offices. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1985, p. 24.

[3] Eden, P, J. Feather & G. Matthews. Preservation policies and conservation in British academic libraries in 1993: a survey. British Journal of Academic Librarianship, 1993, 8(2), p. 71.

[4] Eden, P, J. Feather & G. Matthews. Preservation policies and conservation in British academic libraries in 1993: a survey. British Journal of Academic Librarianship, 1993, 8(2), p. 71.

[5] Donnelly, Helene. Disaster planning in the 1990's: getting it right. The Law Librarian, 1992, 23(1), p. 19.

[6] Eden, P, J. Feather & G. Matthews. Preservation policies and conservation in British academic libraries in 1993: a survey. British Journal of Academic Librarianship, 1993, 8(2), p. 71.

[7] Matthews, Graham. Fire and water: damage at the USSR Academy of Sciences Library. Library Association Record, 1988, 90(5), p. 279.

[8] Smith, Richard D. Disaster recovery: problems and procedures. IFLA Journal, 1992, 18(1) p. 13.

[9] Joseph, G.W. & G.W. Couturier. Essential management activities to support effective disaster planning. International Journal of Information Management. 1993, 13, p. 321.

[10] Bush, Vannevar. As we may think. Atlantic Monthly, 1945, 176(1), pp. 101-108.

[11] Hypermedia is a more general term than hypertext and suggests links to other media. McKnight et al point out that hypermedia is often misused as 'multimedia' (McKnight, Cliff, Andrew Dillon & John Richardson. Hypertext in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 2). They also note that traditional 'text' contains other media such as pictures and tables and so in line with this the term hypertext will be used here to mean a document containing several media.

[12] McKnight, Cliff, Andrew Dillon & John Richardson. Hypertext in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 3.

[13] Bush, Vannevar. As we may think. Atlantic Monthly, 1945, 176(1), pp. 101-108.

[14] For a discussion and review see McAleese, R. Navigation and browsing in hypertext. In: McAleese, R. ed. Hypertext: theory into practice, Oxford: Intellect, 1989.

[15] McKnight, Cliff, Andrew Dillon & John Richardson. Hypertext in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[16] McAleese, R. ed. Hypertext: theory into practice, Oxford: Intellect, 1989.

[17] McKnight, Cliff, Andrew Dillon & John Richardson. Hypertext in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 17.

[18] Higgins, K & R. Boone. Hypertext computer study guides and the social studies achievement of students with learning disabilities, remedial students, and regular education students. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1990, 239(9), p. 539.

[19] McKnight, Cliff, Andrew Dillon & John Richardson. Hypertext in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 8.

[20] Conklin, J. Hypertext: an introduction and survey. IEEE Computer, 1987, 20(9), p. 38.


Author details

Emma Blagg,
FIDDO (eLib) project officer,
Loughborough University

Date published: 
Saturday, 19 July 1997
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