Events & News

Archival Disasters: Prevention & Response

May 14, 2013 | By Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe, Vice-Chair
Article from the Spring 2013 Newsletter

Superstorm Sandy struck New York with great ferocity in late October 2012 and wrought havoc on the City. The most damaging aspect of the hurricane was its devastating storm surge on October 29 that flooded streets, subway lines, tunnels, and roadways, and caused a massive loss of electrical power across the five boroughs. Many New Yorkers saw their homes destroyed; many businesses and organizations were dramatically affected. In addition to the tragic loss of 45 lives in New York City alone, Sandy left billions of dollars of property damage in her wake, and efforts to rebuild and have been slow and difficult. All of us at the Archive Project extend our profound sympathies to those who suffered personal loss from this horrific storm.

While the storm’s damage to archival records in New York and elsewhere by no means approximates the human toll exacted by Sandy, the hurricane and its damage do provide a painful reminder to archivists to evaluate the “best practices” for protecting collections from the ravages of any disaster, natural or manmade, large or small. In a recent outreach email to the Archivists Round Table, the Archive Project asked members to weigh in on how to prevent disasters in archives and what to do if a disaster should strike. The responses were both immediate and comprehensive.

Peter Brothers, of SPECS BROS., LLC, a lab that performs disaster recovery, shared a comprehensive list of key things to keep in mind to safeguard archives when catastrophe strikes. On a basic level, he suggests the following:

1) Do not store materials on the floor or place valuable materials below ground level. (Fellow Round Table respondent Gregory Jackson, Archivist of Glencairn Museum in Pennsylvania, echoed this observation with, “Let’s just start with a basic step. Nothing on the floor.”)

2) Isolate damage vectors by closing doors and covering materials to minimize exposure.

3) If you can copy your materials, do so, and keep the copies in geographically separated locations. Also keep an offsite record of your holdings and their locations within your archive. (In the midst of a disaster, onsite records may not be accessible, and computers may not be functioning.)

4) Maintain your collection materials in good condition; well-preserved materials often withstand the effects of a disaster better than materials that are already in a compromised condition.

Brothers also observes that archives should have an emergency plan in place, but that it should be a simple first response plan to engender critical initial responses—overly detailed plans can cause delays. More complicated activities can be implemented later. Emergency response numbers should be posted, and materials such as mops, gloves, buckets, and tarpaulins should be on hand. At least two individuals should be named to act in the case of a calamity: as Peter observes from firsthand experience, “in over 50% of the disasters we have seen at archives, the individual authorized to act was unavailable at the time of the disaster.” And these designated people should be empowered to move forward. Leaving disaster response to staff members who have no authority to act can result in an ineffectual response.

Additionally, Brothers cautions archivists to remember that first reactions to disasters require ready money, so plan ahead. Respondents need to have access to funds for initial recovery of archival materials. These funds need not be the amount required for the entire recovery but should be on hand for critical first response items. As Peter puts it, “Waiting for insurance payments, government support, or fundraisers before initial damage control can cause massive additional damage.”

Another respondent who offered many useful tips is Beth Russell, an archivist at the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This archive comprises primarily manuscripts, photographs, negatives, and glass plates, with a few audio-visual items. The collection is not artifact-driven. Beth provided the Archive Project with an April 11th phone interview; the text here combines both her email information and the content of that interview.

Beth related her personal experience with a small fire and zoned sprinkler release that took place on October 26, 2012, just three days before Sandy’s storm surge in New York. The fire caused little damage, but the water led to fairly extensive damage. Although the cause of the fire has officially been declared undetermined, the sprinkler release set in motion a disaster response that is instructive. The event took place during the day when Beth and two other staff members were in the archives. Although patrons had visited previously, there were no guests in the archives at the time of the fire. When the lights first went out in the reading room, and then elsewhere, and smoke could be seen in the stacks, Beth knew she had a problem. She called 911 and then the building manager. Fortunately, in Beth’s words, the firefighters were very cognizant of the area they were entering and did not come in with “hoses blasting.”

According to Beth, having a disaster plan in place was critical in managing the situation. About five years ago, Beth’s colleague, Julie Blair, attended a Midwest Archives Conference dealing with this topic and used the information gained there to create a disaster plan for the Michigan Technological University and Copper Country Historical Collections. (For those interested in history, the copper strike in this part of the country predated the 1848 gold strike in California by several years, hence the dual name for the archives.) Beth admires the great deal of work that it took to prioritize the contents of the collection—but the effort paid off when responders “knew what to pull first.” The plan also provided contact information for local vendors in the Upper Peninsula who arrived within five hours to transport wet material and provide freezer storage. Almost 800 boxes went into storage, first in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and then to a treatment facility in Philadelphia. Combined with the large volume of materials related to Sandy that are also in line for treatment in the Philadelphia facility, there is a backlog of 5,000 boxes waiting to be processed, delaying the return of material to Michigan Tech.

Also critical to the response were volunteers. Although they were not signed up in advance of a potential crisis, according to Beth, the “high profile” of the archives in the community enlisted immediate support from many sources. Beth emailed several professors in the Social Sciences Department at the University and some student organizations. The local paper spread the word as well, and in the end, the archives actually had to turn away some people wishing to help. (This speaks volumes on how an archive can develop and utilize local support.)

In spite of all that happened, Beth and her team quickly began to set things aright. By the week before Thanksgiving, patrons had limited access to the archives again, although the stacks were covered in plastic. By this April, the stacks were cleared, new tile floors were installed, ceiling tiles were replaced, returned materials was being processed, and visiting days went from three days to five, albeit with abbreviated hours. The first shipment of stored boxes returned in February, and the next shipment is expected in mid-April. Beth also credits an “amazing disaster response firm” which helped enormously by addressing the rehabilitation of both the archive’s physical space and the damaged collections.

Although those involved in the response and recovery effected what seems to be an exemplary disaster case study, Beth does think she learned a few lessons from the experience: “We should have taken an inventory of material as it left the building, because some reboxed materials stayed while others left.” The archives also needed to have more disaster supplies on hand, such as flashlights and tarps. Additionally, Beth will be adding a “command post” to facilitate communication while recovery is ongoing. And in a final insight, Beth cannot say enough about the importance of using the proper conservation materials in an archives, observing that “the money spent on high quality archival boxes and folders was money well spent.” In fact, “even folders [inside damaged boxes] that looked horrible contained materials that were in good condition.”

Yet another person to answer the Archive Project’s online query, Bonnie Weddle, the Coordinator of Electronic Records for the New York State Archives, weighed in with advice vis-à-vis building management and the disposal of flood-damaged archival materials. Bonnie suggests that, if possible, archivists reach out in advance of a disaster to building management to emphasize the importance of irreplaceable archival collections and explain that even badly damaged materials can be salvaged. This effort may well avert what Bonnie describes as the “depressing frequency with which building management dispose(s) of flood-damaged archival records without consulting the records’ creators/custodians.”


Above: Volunteers help on the day of the fire; Courtesy of the Michigan Technological University Archives