May Day Motto: Be Prepared

In honor of the Heritage Preservation organization’s annual MayDay initiative to protect cultural heritage from disasters, the Archives will be highlighting how we deal with emergencies and how you can prepare yourself in a series of blog posts.

This image is quite dark for a reasonâ€

April Showers may bring May flowers, but around here the change of month brings thoughts of May Day, the Heritage Preservation organization’s annual reminder about emergency preparedness for our collections, no matter what the weather. We too have our share of problems around here, some of which are indoor accidents such as the sprinkler release (due to heat buildup below the sprinkler) pictured below.

Not all disasters come from floodwaters; this one came from a sprinkler release on the floor above.

Thankfully, and because we plan for and are prepared to handle small scale emergencies in-house, we can quickly move into a “Response and Recovery” mode. But what about small libraries or archives that are affected by the same types of disaster but haven’t pre-planned for such contingencies?

Earlier this year, I received the following email from a colleague: “My mom is a librarian at a middle school and they had a sprinkler malfunction in the library sometime Sunday or early Monday morning [author’s note: this email was received the following Tuesday]. About 1,500-2,000 books were affected. As of right now, they are trying to determine whether or not they can save them. Do you think it is worth the time to attempt to salvage a collection of children and young adult books that are most likely replaceable?  They are attempting to dry out the books until they decide how to proceed, although I am unsure of how they are going about it.”

This was my response, somewhat edited:  Although possible, it’s likely not worth it to save the books, depending on how wet and warm they are, and whether the library  has the budget, space, time, and insurance money to do so. If books are only slightly wet, it is certainly possible to set them up on tables in an area with circulating fans and dehumidifiers. If they are seriously soaked, they can be quickly frozen and then vacuum or vacuum thermal freeze dried (VFD/VTFD), and then additionally vacuumed by a disaster recovery company to remove any potential mold residues. In school situations, parents and school boards have generally preferred to avoid the risk of reusing potentially moldy materials (even if there is no mold risk identified). Also, because of the high image content of children’s books as opposed to text-heavy young adult readers, a good percentage of those books are produced on glossy coated paper stock, which may not recover as well from a treatment if they have been allowed to partially dry out in warm conditions for more than forty-eight hours and have stuck (or “blocked”) together, or supported mold growth.

Postgraduate Fellow Anna Friedman releases wet negatives from sleeves holding water. Photo courtesy

Summing up, all is not lost when archival and library materials are wetted in accident or flood. Successful recovery is highly dependent on the advance planning and resources of the organization and context and worth of the material. If one is prepared to react with a Disaster Plan, and not in crisis mode, surprising amounts of material are recoverable, legible, and usable.

MayDay_Heritage_11To quote another famous line:  Be Prepared.

To build your own disaster plan, here are some resources:

Finally, stay tuned for an upcoming blog post in this series regarding other techniques for dealing with wet paper.


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