From the Ashes

By Nigel Paull, Ann Johnston

A disaster occurring in a library is often in the back of the minds of Teacher Librarians. Occasionally we hear reference to floods, acts of vandalism, or worst of all a devastating fire. In late 1996 Gratton Public School, a K-6 school in northern NSW with 850 students, had its library burnt to the ground, along with the entire collection housed in it. The process of rebuilding the library and replacing the collection occupied all of 1997. Ann Johnston, Teacher Librarian at Grafton Public School, spoke to Nigel Paull about this harrowing time.

Ironically, several hours after attending the official opening of the new school hall, Ann was woken by two staff members at 2.30 am and told the tragic news that the library was completely burnt down. Her first response was to ask if they were joking. Her second response was to immediately check her handbag for the all important OASIS system back up tapes, just to be sure they were there. They were.

Ann surveyed the scene and realised that nothing could be salvaged from the remains of the charred library. After reporting to police and fire authorities, Ann and the staff of the school realised that the greatest loss would not be the videos, computer equipment or thousands of books, but rather the irreplaceable archives, photos and sporting trophies dating back to the 1880s.

The day after the fire the school staff devised a plan to cope with the disaster. Ann was released for a year to work on coordinating and replacing the collection while a casual Teacher Librarian was employed to take classes in individual classrooms. Deputy Principal Maurice Johnston worked closely with Ann handling the administrative and financial details in conjunction with the auditors, insurance assessors and the NSW Department of School Education.

The site was cleared, and work on the replacement building commenced. A temporary portable library became the operations centre for planning the massive task of replacing an entire collection. Members of the community responded quickly and came forward with old photographs, copies of documents, newspaper clippings and video recordings of past school events to help rebuild the archives.

Ann and her team of clerical staff had to start assessing the loss of items from the collection. Printing all the relevant information from the OASIS tapes took 28 hours (and killed off an old loaned printer). It was established that of 17,000 items in the collection 2 285 survived, simply due to the fact that they were borrowed at the time. Once the stock loss was established additional clerical staff were hired to cope with processing and the payment of orders. A significant loss for teachers was that of the reading resource boxes, which contained unique teacher developed material. Getting a workable Reference and Teacher Reference section up and running in the first few weeks was imperative. This would assist teachers to continue to provide quality teaching programs.

New computers for OASIS were ordered, along with new barcodes. The barcodes were ordered with a starting number 10,000 higher than the last one used prior to the fire to make identification easy. Donation stickers were also needed to complement the hundreds of books being donated by schools, individuals and businesses. Forward planning saw the ordering of all the necessary pre-requisites to process the huge amount of new stock that would be arriving. Indeed the order for covering materials alone was worth over $10,000.

Publishers and booksellers set up displays to assist the staff to select appropriate material. Under the guidelines set out by the assessor, items had to be purchased in corresponding quantities to each Dewey location prior to the fire. Initially individual books were ordered but it soon became apparent that buying a series of titles, or multiple copies, was more time efficient. Buying trips to Sydney were organised and on the first occasion 4,000 books were purchased, on the second another 3,000. Buying a publisher's entire catalogue was not an isolated experience.

Before items were added to OASIS they had to be matched to their invoice in what proved to be a daunting task. By the end of March the first records were ordered from Curriculum Corporation using Rapid Retrospective. This process would continue through to the end of 1997 when the sixteenth Rapid Retrospective disk was returned and the last items were added to OASIS. Indeed Ann remarked that 'the whole library revolved around Rapid Retrospective'.

By term 3 resource boxes were being borrowed by the staff from the temporary library, and by term 4 class loans of both fiction and non-fiction were available. A fortnight before the end of the 1997 school year the stock was being transferred to the new library building. The staff and students of Grafton Public School were eagerly looking forward to the commencement of the 1998 school year when things would be back to normal.

Throughout 1997 Ann and Maurice organised a willing band of workers behind the scenes. Local schools al lowed some clerical staff or Teacher Librarians to assist where possible. The local Teacher Librarians' collegial group held meetings and assisted with developing strategies and work flow patterns. Parents, teachers and students of Grafton Public School helped with covering the thousands of books, as did other schools. Indeed boxes of books were delivered and returned by various schools throughout the Clarence Valley. A myriad of details had to be attended to along the way. These ranged from thank you letters for donations, to keeping parents and staff informed of progress, and choosing fixtures for the new building.

At times the task seemed overwhelming, but it was completed due to thorough planning at the school level and cooperation among individuals and groups. A lot of people gave that little extra of themselves during this time: staff gave up part of their holidays; assistance from the NSW Department of School Education's OASIS Helpline was terrific; service from suppliers was efficient; and the SCIS staff from Curriculum Corporation were most helpful. Approximately $300,000 was spent on new stock and $1,000,000 on a new building. Grafton Public School now has one of the leading collections of contemporary resources in NSW, but at a tremendous cost in terms of time, money and lost opportunities.

At the time of writing someone had been charged with setting fire to Grafton Public School's library, with the matter still to be resolved in court.

Nigel Paull

Nigel Paull



Ann Johnston


Grafton Public School