This is the second post in the COSTEP MA blog series Disaster Diaries. Disaster Diaries shares stories from institutions across Massachusetts that have recently experienced a collections emergency or disaster. To contribute a post, email

Written by Kathy Griffin, Nora Saltonstall Preservation Librarian, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Water Leaks in the Time of Coronavirus

As the Preservation Librarian in an independent historical research library and manuscript repository, I am responsible for the institution’s emergency planning and response, including maintaining the disaster plan – which I call the “Emergency Management Plan” (with the notion that not all emergencies are disasters – at least one hopes so).

Many cultural heritage institutions that are, or were, closed for the pandemic, were forced by circumstances to make plans for collection care and building care while the staff members were quarantined in their homes, and the building shuttered.  For our part, members of the Facilities department were appointed to do building walk-throughs once a week (and sometimes more often).

Our own phased re-opening plan (on a different schedule than the State plan) consists of three “teams” of staff members on a three-week rotation, whereby each team (consisting of no more than 25% of the staff) works for one week in the building and then works from home for two weeks. (If the math feels funny here, that is due to the fact that a number of staff members need not work in the building at all, because of the nature of their jobs.)  The first day of our Phased Re-Opening was Monday, July 6.

What were the odds that on the very first day of a carefully-crafted reopening plan, with a very limited number of staff in the building, there would be a water emergency? And yet – Murphy’s Law is ever at the ready!  Within a half-hour of the official unlocking of the doors, a corroded valve broke in a wall on the first floor of the building, and water poured through the wall, onto the floor, and through the wall to the basement rooms below the general area of the leak.  This problem was quickly detected by staff in the building, at least two of whom had experienced water emergencies before – and people sprang into action to move wet books and safeguard items not yet damaged, as well as to turn off the broken water apparatus – which took some time.

I was on vacation, enjoying a summer morning walk in the woods, coming down a hill trail in Maine, when my supervisor called me (and I only had my phone because I wanted to take photographs at the top of the trail) – amazingly, I had reception in the woods – and there was nothing I could do except to talk to people who were dealing with the emergency (and annoy other people on the trail, I am sorry to say). And oh, the irony and agony of having an emergency management plan but not being able to do my own part in responding to the emergency – or to even oversee what was happening, or to reassure myself that our beloved collections were safe – these circumstances are painful and difficult to confront in such a situation.  And by the time my supervisor had called me, much of the response had already occurred, so that I could only ask questions about what HAD been done, rather than offer any advice on what SHOULD be done.  I could not even return to my workplace and look at the aftermath, because it was not “my week” for being back in the building.

My colleagues are all dedicated and thoughtful people, as devoted to the place as I – but without an emergency team in place, it is hard to respond in quite the same way as would happen during a normal time, that is, not during a pandemic closure.

The Hot Wash (Debrief), or What I Learned

If the vast majority of your staff are out of the building, and are not allowed to come back into the building, you cannot use your emergency team in any structured fashion. You simply have to use the staff members who are available.  This would have been fine, except:  we have three full-time Facilities staff, and one is assigned to each week of the phased re-opening schedule. The Facilities Manager (who is also a licensed plumber) was NOT assigned to Week One of the Reopening schedule. He was called in, to deal with the crisis, thus immediately tossing out the window the careful team assignments drawn up over weeks of planning for the Reopening.  The physical-distancing rules were also immediately tossed out the window, because on-site staff had to work together to move wet and endangered collections items and equipment from vulnerable locations. Everyone got wet feet because no one had time to find the water-proof boots that are part of our emergency supplies (it’s a fairly large building, with six floors and a basement, and there are boots stored on two different floors).  We have water monitors in the storage stacks and in the basement storage rooms, but not on the first floor, so no water monitor went off (this wasn’t an issue since the leak was detected by on-site staff, but it could be a problem if a leak happens at night).  And unfortunately, as was pointed out by a speaker at a symposium I recently attended (virtually):  “We get thrown into response.” Since no one was consulting the emergency plan in the middle of an emergency, no one thought to take pictures of the damage in situ, or to take pictures of the wet materials which were discarded (and the trash was collected before I could inquire).  Lesson learned:  more training regarding the basic elements of responding to an emergency, is required.

Items that were damaged beyond repair or use, and were not irreplaceable, were discarded.  To be clear: no original manuscripts or rare books were destroyed. The materials affected on the first floor were all publications, mostly our own publications, which exist in duplicate elsewhere. Wet equipment can be dried out. Supplies affected in the basement, below the leak (boxes, board, packing materials) can be replaced.  We have giant fans for drying out the carpeting and for moving air through the rooms where books are drying on tables.

Photographs of damage are important for making insurance claims, and in this case, there may be some portion of damaged goods that cannot be claimed because we lack definite inventories of the discarded, ruined supplies.

But this is how we learn!