Submitted by Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) Preservation Specialist (& COSTEP MA co-chair) Evan Knight
On June 15 I led a workshop on practical approaches to disaster planning, with attendees from historical societies and museums from all over Western Mass. The event was hosted by the Pioneer Valley History Network and held at the Deerfield Community Center in Historic Deerfield.
Instead of compiling and sharing some of the great many templates, plans, resources, or reports that are available, I was hoping for a more interactive session. My goal was to facilitate a discussion of what works, what doesn’t, and what we can do better with disaster response, tailored to the capacity and needs of each attendee. Many thanks to PVHN and all the attendees, who contributed great points to our discussion and helped make a great session!
We started by introducing ourselves and our collections, and talking about our issues. All had mixed collections with combinations of art or decorative objects, tools, historic machinery, books, photographs, archives, and more. Buildings ranged from barns to historic homes, and most had ongoing issues of dampness, occasional building envelope leaks, and pests. We also shared some of our recent successes: CPA funding for major projects, good inventory controls for collections, good relationships with emergency responders, and lessons learned from responding to and recovering from previous water leaks.
Some of notes, and links to share, are listed below:
- For water leaks or really any other minor collections disaster, I suggest the following framework for response: Identify the issue, Isolate the damages, and Communicate at all times.
- Identify: find the root cause of the water leak and work as quickly as you can to shut it off. If you’ve had roof or gutter issues, make sure you have an appropriate repair person in mind should it arise again. Consider modifying your water system with shut-off valves (and recording their location!) or simpler water heating equipment.
- Isolate: be prepared to divert leaking water with plastic sheeting into buckets. If you don’t have disaster supplies, consider buying plastic sheeting, scissors, tape, and buckets – in my opinion, these are the most important things to have on hand! Remove nearby collection objects to dry areas and begin recovery, but you will need space for this step, so in your planning, consider where those spaces can be (e.g., what if your emergency is building-wide?) and if you have the tables and people power to do recovery yourself. If not, consider having a recovery vendor pre-screened. Make a list of all affected materials and rate their damage on scale of one to three. A critical question is who to call in for help if you need assistance – if you don’t have space, people, or if the damages affect too many objects, you may need vendors to help right away. Also try to get fans and dehumidifiers going as soon as you can – rent or buy if necessary. For free collections advice during an emergency, definitely call National Heritage Responders, NEDCC Emergency Hotline, or, for Libraries and Archives, MBLC’s Preservation Specialist. Their phone numbers and links are in bold, in red, at the top of every COSTEP MA web page, and conservators or preservation professionals can help you deal with your emergency!
- Communicate: There can be many internal and external partners in disaster response and recovery. We’re talking mostly about smaller, local emergencies, but it’s important to consider what we’d do in case of a community-wide or even regional disaster: get to know your town’s Emergency Management Director now! Let them know that you’d need to check on your collections as soon as it’s safely possible should anything big strike. If you want to stay informed about extreme weather alerts or other disaster information, an amazing hyperlocal app has been released by Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA): Massachusetts Alerts. For collections damage, consider which stakeholders and partners need to stay informed: Administrators, facilities specialists, staff & volunteers, disaster recovery vendors, and insurance.
- Double check that your insurance policy can covers your archives, even if unappraised. Umbrella policies don’t usually cover archives but there are riders that can be really helpful.
- Double check your alarm and fire detection systems. Can you work with fire and police to periodically check your systems? Perhaps host them and their families for a first responder day!
- Most common pests: mice and powder post beetles. Bucket traps for mice were tough but effective. “Integrated pest management” (IPM) is a general term used to describe an approach some museums take to monitor levels of pest activities, and the results of pest controls, throughout the year. Museumpests.net has more information and although fairly old (1997), this page from the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute is also useful.
- Consider using a humidistat to control the air in your collections areas. Consider circulating or dehumidifying air in collections spaces when RH is high for a few days in a row.
I like the following documents and shared them with participants:
- Canadian Conservation Institute’s list of Ten Agents of Deterioration to help us think about risks holistically.
- The Library of Congress’ advice on “What to do when collections get wet” provides solid, clear advice.
- More specific recovery information is available from the Foundation for the Advancement of Conservation (FAIC) Disaster Response and Recovery Guides: “Emergency! If you’re first” includes brief, format-specific salvage information. “Tips for the Care of Water-Damaged Family Heirlooms and Other Valuables” has practical advice for non-conservators.
- Digital Commonwealth for free digitization and hosting. Consider downloading an inventory template from MBLC to help with metadata preparation.
- MA SHRAB for archives: grants that support building an archival program, buying supplies, and processing collections.
- NEH Preservation Assistance Grants for smaller institutions.
- Collections Assessement for Preservation grants.