Computers in Libraries
Vol. 22, No. 4 • April 2002

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How Technology and Planning Saved My Library at Ground Zero
by Sidney Eng

"I'll tell you the story of how my library 'stayed open' technologically in the weeks following the attacks. The way our network was designed was key to why we were able to function even after a disaster of this magnitude."
The Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) is one of the 19 campuses that make up the City University of New York. It is the largest community college in the system, with a robust enrollment in part because of its location near the downtown Wall Street area. It is, as we liked to say, in the shadow of the World Trade Center. The college's main building at 199 Chambers Street is the size of the Empire State Building lying sideways; it spans the length of 2 full city blocks. Our other building, the 15-story-tall Fiterman Hall at 30 West Broadway, is only 3 blocks away from the main campus, where a brand new virtual library center would have opened in January 2002.

The September 11 Attack and Immediate Aftermath
It was a refreshingly crisp September morning when the first plane crashed into North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC). I was on the phone with a librarian who had called in sick at that same moment. I told the caller to get some rest because something had just happened outside and someone might need help. From the bone-chilling shriek I heard after a big bang, I originally thought that a crane had toppled from a high-rise nearby, because there was some construction work going on in the area. But when I raced outside and looked up, I saw this unbelievable scene that did not quite resemble the pictures we later saw either on TV or in print.

I saw these two majestic twin towers against the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky, and everything was still except that on the upper floors of the North Tower faint whiffs of smoke were oozing out of a horizontally cut line. Who would have guessed that a hijacked airliner had just made a clean incision across this metallic body of stately steel? It was such a horrific sight that its physical contradiction almost gave a perverted sense of extraordinary grandeur. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thick smoke billowed out as word quickly got around that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center. Back inside, most of my staff and some students had gone to the southern end of my library, where we had a direct view of the towers. As sirens from emergency vehicles erupted everywhere, we began to see debris, shrapnel, and, later, victims, falling from the inferno. People were stunned. At this point we didn't know it was not an "ordinary" explosion but an act of terror, so we were inclined to try to continue library business as usual.
Click photos for full-size images.
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Students could see the WTC towers from our library (in the lower right).
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The National Guard unloads supplies at BMCC.  We observed that the rescue efforts were organized and methodical.
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BMCC became a command center after 9/11.  Rescue workers confer in front of the college's day-care center.
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Burning debris from the collapsed towers landed on the steps of BMCC's Filterman building.  Here, resue workers attempt to extinguish the flames.

Soon after, even as I tried to turn the gathering crowd away from the windows, the second plane hit the South Tower. It was then clear that we were under a terrorist attack. Although I didn't have authorization, I told the gathering staff that those who wished to leave might do so, since safety was an issue, but that I would prefer for them to stay put—and away from the windows—just long enough to hear official word. Soon, security personnel came to evacuate the building. Two librarians made me promise to stay until they figured out their plans.

I had decided that I was going to stay anyway, because in the uncertainty of the moment I feared more attacks, and it seemed that my way home through the Pennsylvania Railroad Station was unsafe. My logic was that if the attack continued, railroads, tunnels, and bridges would be obvious targets. Sometime after 10 a.m., the WTC towers came down one after the other. I was following the news from our library Web site, listening to the radio, and trying to track down relatives all at the same time. Our site has national news headlines that change every 15 minutes, and I remember thinking to myself that this plug-in was quite handy.

When the dust from the collapsing North Tower reached the perimeters of our main building, fear took the better of me. Just before I finally left the library at about 1 p.m., I actually took time to turn off the computers. Little did I know that we, along with the rest of the neighborhood, would soon lose electric power and water. As I exited through the back entrance, I found the cafeteria swamped with battle-fatigued rescue workers. Some of them were calling home on the pay phones while others were given refreshments, courtesy of BMCC's president. Later that evening, electric power and all phone service, including the two T-1 lines, were cut off.

That same afternoon, another building, 7 World Trade Center, caught fire and eventually fell on and clipped away part of the Fiterman Building, which had been a $32 million gift to the college. The first three floors of the 15-story building were in the midst of renovations to become a new library center with 400 flat-screen computers on specially designed furniture. So far the college had spent $65 million in renovations to the building. But considering that the Fiterman staff that day had to escape through a basement exit, no one can quibble over the loss of the communication infrastructure, including all fixed CAT-5 wiring, switching cores, and cable trays, that was already in place.

It would be almost 2 weeks before I returned to the campus, and 3 weeks before BMCC reopened. But during that time I was not idle. My colleagues and I felt we had to keep the library Web site up to serve our students with news and resources. Our role as information managers is to keep reliable information flowing. So, believe it or not, with the exception of the first 5 days, library service was available online. I answered many e-mail reference questions from home. We updated our site to include links to research on anthrax, terrorism, and women in Afghanistan. I'll tell you the story of how my library "stayed open" technologically in the weeks following the attacks. The way our network was designed was key to why we were able to function even after a disaster of this magnitude.

Managing Things from Home
I live only an hour away from Ground Zero, but commuting home on September 11 took on a special meaning. After having to walk half of Manhattan to the Long Island Railroad, I eventually got home after 6 p.m. on an almost empty train. Yet only a few hours earlier, the public transportation system had been shut down, and thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers were walking over the bridges in pandemonium. It turned out to have been a good decision to delay my return.

The next day, I started trying to contact my staff members at home to check on them. I discovered quickly that we Americans move around a lot. The list of phone numbers I kept at home was sadly out of date. I called my secretary, but her list was also incomplete. On top of that, the e-mail system we depended on was no longer in service. I noted that I would have to update and expand the list when we returned—surely we all had other e-mail accounts, which we could use whenever the system became unavailable. One by one, by the time payday came on September 13, I managed to call many of the staff members to tell them where to pick up their checks.

On September 17, as soon as it was confirmed that the college Web site was running again, I called my Web technician. It had been nearly a week since that fateful Tuesday. Since I did not want to use the version of FTP programs I had on my computer at home, I asked my technician to put the news update on the library's Web pages, highlighted by an orange "9/11/01," and also asked him to employ a tricolor patriotic ribbon as the screen cursor. More significantly, I had him move the Ask-a-Librarian link to the front page to make the service more visible. This feature was linked to my own e-mail account, and I received many inquiries. I also used my home e-mail to arrange for the CUNY Central Office to halt book deliveries and to make changes in the system so that BMCC students could renew library books at other CUNY campuses, which was not covered by the existing open-access policy. This information was also posted on our Web site.

During this period, the administration moved its operations to one of our satellite locations at 125th Street, and the IT service moved to the CUNY Central Office's Computer Center at 57th Street. Three members of the Media Center made the latter move, retrieving the library server from Ground Zero literally in the dark, a few days after the attack. Moving BMCC's base of operations allowed the college's managers to provide hotline help, stress and grief counseling, and other essential communication through a phone bank, the college Web site, and the e-mail system. Both administratively and psychologically, it was important to stay in control. Similarly, for the sake of our many needy students, my goal was to continue offering baseline library information service.

We held a staff meeting on Friday, September 21 in the library itself to plan for our return. Seeing one another face-to-face was reassuring.

Surviving with the Internet
The college reopened October 1, but we still had to wait more than a week to get limited Internet access back through a different commercial carrier. Throughout, if you were accessing the library pages from the outside, you wouldn't have known there was any interruption of service. This was a miracle made possible by the Internet and by the communication infrastructure that we had in place. When you think about it, ours was not only a library without books; it was a library without librarians. The fact that our Web site was stable and functional was not coincidental. When you plan for a sufficient number of circumstances, you'll be prepared for many problems, however unforeseen. Now I will discuss the simple and redundant aspects of our library Web site, as well as the concept of database-driven content. With concerted effort, any library can achieve the same setup we had.
"My colleagues and I felt we had to keep the library Web site up to serve our students with news and resources."

Our Development Strategy Was to Keep Things Simple
What was important in BMCC's experience was the strategy to make the virtual library our centerpiece. Our idea for a virtual library was born with the donation of the Fiterman building in 1998. We decided that instead of replicating what the college had in the main building, we'd establish a virtual library center there by using 400 networked computers. It would contain three distinct components: the browser-based interface, the data communication structure, and a physical location. 1

The BMCC library site as a portal has two sections: the main library pages and the virtual library pages. Although seamlessly linked as well as overlapped, the pages in the main section are static HTML pages, while those in the virtual library section are driven by a database as a back end. HTML pages are written on the fly when a user makes an inquiry. This approach keeps the number of static pages low.

We use static HTML pages to provide links to the CUNY online catalog, online indexes, useful Web sites, help section, and general information about the library. Following the lead of the pioneer W3 Virtual Library Project, our library is a core collection of Internet links organized by subject (based on the academic departments), and by format (Web sites, e-journals, e-texts, and e-reference). This makes unmediated searching from home easier. We added to this core collection of resources other online library services and resources such as e-books, full-text articles, government documents, e-reference, e-reserve, etc. Other accessories include library information and a news feed.

Physically, the pages of the main library site are kept in the college's Web server. This is the case because in 1998 the college server had little else as its content, and the library did not have the resources to run an independent server. The virtual library, which is literally in a box, also houses the proxy service. The proxy has been important to us because BMCC has an extensive list of full-text databases that are accessible only through recognizable IP addresses. After the attacks, when everyone (including the librarians!) had to access all resources from off-site computers, our proxy setup turned out to be essential.

Relocating the Server
We have kept our Web site relatively small through skillful programming. All the files put together consume about 10 megabytes of storage. If we put the content of our Web site in text files (minus the graphics) it will take up about 10 floppy disks, and only 2 disks if we compress the files. In either case, a CD or a Zip disk allows a staff member to carry the whole library around. That fact turned out to be one of the things that saved us.

There are many heroes at different levels who helped the college recover from the tragic event. As my primary concern is maintaining library service, the real heroes for me are the two staff members and their supervisor from the Media Center who carried the Web server uptown by subway. Without them, the virtual library would not have existed for 2­3 weeks because the server would have been out of reach. On Monday, September 17, the three of them met at the BMCC's temporary headquarters at 125th Street. They rode the subway until 14th Street, as far as it would travel following the attack. From there, they were escorted for the next four subway stops by BMCC's security detail in a clearly marked squad car to gain entry to the restricted area. Soldiers guarded the area around Ground Zero as if it were a war zone. The security at that point was so tight that any unexpected action, such as taking photographs or hanging up a banner on the roof, would be met by gun-toting soldiers. After the three had been identified, they were instructed to don hard hats and masks as safety precautions. In the glare of a heavy-duty flashlight, they entered from the far end of the main BMCC building and disconnected the library server. They then took the time to turn off other remaining computer devices. The reason for doing that was to avoid the power surge that could occur when electricity returned later. Luckily, the library server was not heavy. With the server and a scanner, the three staff members quickly retraced their steps back to CUNY's Computer Center at 57th Street.

We found that mapping the files and setting up the server in the new location was simple because the CUNY Computer Center has always been our Internet service provider (ISP), and we use the same interface card. A word to the wise: Always use standard products to be sure your systems are compatible with as many other systems as possible.

Students Return to BMCC
When the students finally returned on October 1, the library was facing a different set of problems. Since the central station of Verizon's telecommunications operations had been destroyed with the WTC buildings, that left local law enforcement, government agencies, and big businesses competing for the remaining bandwidth from alternative carriers. Can you guess who would get priority to have their phone lines restored—BMCC, the FBI, or FEMA? As a result, we still had no phone or Internet for almost 3 weeks. A high-tech library like ours suddenly needed a high-touch solution. We had meetings and sent out memos to make sure the staff understood the need to be in control, and to make the students feel safe and welcome. I stressed the following areas:

  • The circulation desk reverted to the manual system of bygone years. We limited checkout to three books per student, and provided an extended grace period for overdue books. The students were very understanding and grateful.

  • I had many of the fluorescent lights replaced with new ones throughout the library, and had the entrance repainted, including a 45-foot-long mural. This made the library appear bright and fresh.

  • Even though there was no Internet access, I made sure all the new iMacs on the open floor were turned on. Psychologically, I wanted the students to feel that the business of education was continuing—and it was.

  • Near the library entrance, we displayed the many touching letters and communications that we had received from all over the country. Students could read for themselves that the world shared their trauma and cared about BMCC and New York.

  • So that students could search for books without the computers, we distributed a guide to the Library of Congress classification and the stacks. The LC Subject Guide stayed open at the reference desk to identify or to approximate call number ranges in the stacks. This worked quite well.

  • When limited phone service was restored, the head of reference made arrangements with sister schools within CUNY to take some of our reference calls if necessary. The New York Library Association offered a list of its member institutions that volunteered to help. Its gesture was much appreciated.

  • I alerted both students and staff that a team of seven nondenominational chaplains was available if they wanted to discuss their personal feelings and other issues, either privately or in groups.

Planning for Disasters
At this point, it would be natural to raise the issue of having a formal disaster plan. There are many practical reasons to have a formal plan. If nothing else, it is the tool to raise awareness among library staff.

Here at BMCC we can proudly point out that we had such a written plan, and we also had a so-called "disaster closet" where we kept plastic sheets, a dehumidifier, mops, and over-sized pails. As you can surmise, our concern prior to 9/11 was water damage. In truth, what saved the library from a total disruption of service was technology. Let me share some of our disaster plans and what ended up saving our systems.

  • Keeping the Web site small was important because we were able to physically pick up one small server and move it when necessary.

  • No system, not even a well-planned one, can operate without electrical power. We were without power for so many days that no matter what kind of UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) devices we had used, the servers would have been useless unless we moved them to another location the way we did. Even then, without phone service, you can still be powerless. So it's a good idea to create redundant paths for communication and to keep Internet resources on different hosts. In the future we'll also keep a copy of the Web site with a hosting service.

  • We learned the importance of having a list of all the staff members with their home phone numbers and e-mail addresses, as well as some alternative numbers and addresses. In our experience, at first people had no way to communicate with me, even though I also have an AOL account. I missed the first emergency meeting because my provost did not have my current phone number. When the college issued me a cellphone after the attack, I immediately put that number on the Web site so that people could call me to relate messages to my staff. 2

  • The appropriate staff members, who have been trained, should carry a list of passwords so that they can do their work remotely if need be.

  • If a Web site is carefully and regularly backed up, ideally following the same directory structure, then any trained technician can bring it back up on another server. Mapping the address is a relatively easy undertaking. In any failover effort, files will be transferred seamlessly and the site can be reconfigured for use. To make mapping easier, a domain name is always preferable to a raw IP address.

  • If you want to research disaster planning, ALA provides a representative list of resources on its Disaster Preparedness Clearinghouse Web site ( SOLINET recommends a convenient template of a disaster plan at The published plans of Stanford and the University of Pittsburgh are useful examples as well. They both include sections on how to deal with digital data.

Getting Back on Track
The official fate of Fiterman Hall is still undecided, and with it the virtual library center. Is the building still structurally sound? All the relevant parties are looking at a price tag of $240 million to completely replace the building, or $45 million to repair it. Skeptics would ask, why would the insurers want to pay more if a fraction of that amount will do? Instead of waiting for this to play out, BMCC is setting up an uptown campus with 30 trailers on the grounds of City College. Under this plan, classes were scheduled to begin in January 2002. The college has to bring in from the outside all necessary services, including security, electricity, telecommunications, and other academic supports. It certainly puts the virtual library concept to the test. Meanwhile, every day when I walk past Fiterman Hall, the remaining stainless steel facade is a painful reminder of what might have been. The future of the building will be decided by either the engineers or the court, or by both. The contents of the building, however, have been condemned as a result of potential contamination by hazardous pollutants. So far, the college has spent $4 million from its operating budget to bring students and faculty back and to finish the fall 2001 semester. Luckily, all my staff members were unhurt, and they all came back to work with me on October 1.

BMCC took out a full-page advertisement in major newspapers to announce the reopening of the college with this slogan: We Are Stronger Than Ever. This is exactly our library's sentiment. Group discussions, memorial services, t-shirts, banners, and literature made the library the heart of the campus, and its beat goes on.

How the College Responded

After the attack, the college's primary focus was on the students and the staff. Administrators established a hotline and arranged for counseling services to be provided over the phone. The college made over 17,000 calls to students to ask about their well-being and to offer reassurance. After the first round, faculty and staff volunteers made follow-up calls. In many of these calls, the students were even more anxious to learn about their teachersand classmates.

We also learned that large and small decisions can have important consequences. After the twin towers collapsed, the president of BMCC ordered shutting down the ventilation system, halting the circulation of outside air in the college. This action saved the college many thousands of dollars in later clean-up costs. More importantly, he did not relinquish control of the college to the government agencies at any time, which made our eventual return sooner than might have been. Instead, the college pledged full cooperation and became a command center for firemen and the Port Authority Police. He succeeded in leveraging this willingness for the quick restoration of electric power when all of downtown was still blacked out.

The college provided its skilled trade personnel around the clock from its own budget, and emptied out the food supply, as well as first aid/medical supplies that it had for the nursing and allied health departments.

Since all this happened only 2 weeks into the semester, the college offered students a 100 percent refund if they chose to withdraw. Only 300 of our nearly 17,000 students took this option. We also offered them permits to attend other CUNY campuses, and only a handful took advantage of this arrangement. On the library Web sites, we tried to relate all the pertinent information through our online news bulletin. Nothing, however, can compensate for the six students who perished with the WTC. Two of them were firefighters. The college community is still coping with the human and financial losses.


1. Young, Jeffrey R. "A Community College Uses Windfall to Create a Library Without Books." The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 23, 1998): 23-24.

2. The author of the article "Managing through Tragedy" came to the same conclusion that I did: Managers must act quickly and stay in touch with staff during emergencies. This article provides real steps that can be taken to produce an effective organizational response: Todaro, Julie, "Managing through Tragedy," Library Administration & Management 16 (Winter 2002): 40-43.

Sidney Eng is the chief librarian at Borough ofManhattan Community College, City University of New York. He holds a bachelor's degree from Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, and master's degrees from St. John's University and New York University, both in New York City. He has made presentations on his virtual library in places as far as Nashville, Tennessee; San Diego; and Honolulu.
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