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Emergency Management
3.9 Protecting Collections During Renovation


Renovation of a building is frequently a key element in developing an institutional preservation program. Renovations can correct such physical plant problems as inadequate fire protection, poor environmental control, roof leaks, and inefficient use of functional space.

Unfortunately, there are hazards associated with all construction projects. Book and paper collections are highly susceptible to damage from fire, smoke, water, dirt, chemical pollutants, and mishandling--all commonly associated with renovation. Libraries, archives, and museums need more than the protections routinely provided for standard building construction. An accident on any scale will require staff time for response and salvage and may require replacement, reformatting, or conservation treatment of the damaged materials.

In the worst case, a building itself may be lost to construction-related fire. It is highly desirable to relocate collections away from work spaces or to seal them off completely during construction, but this is often impractical. In many cases personnel are insufficient and no suitable space is available for relocation. Thorough seals require labor-intensive efforts and make collections largely inaccessible, and an institution's mission may require continued access to its holdings. An acceptable compromise must be designed to fit each situation. This leaflet is intended to alert institutions to common sources of construction-related damage and to provide some solutions for foreseeable problems.

In all cases it is critical to provide enough detail in contract specifications to insure that contractors: (1) understand the client's requirement of strict contract compliance on safety issues; (2) allow for increased costs to cover strict safety precautions; and (3) employ effective risk management strategies. Do not assume a contractor will supply even contractually specified protections without active monitoring by the client. It is difficult to project costs accurately for large-scale projects, and competitive bids often underestimate. Contractors may try to balance deficits by cutting corners. Many feel it is cheaper to clean up after a (presumably unlikely) disaster than to prevent it. Documenting conservation or replacement costs for representative collections as an attachment to requests for bids may help persuade bidders to take accident prevention seriously.

Administrative and Supervisory Concerns

Adequate protection requires systematic staging of construction activities and good communication between the architect, the contractor, client administration, and the project liaison. An institution's staff must be able to plan for continued access to heavily used and critical collections. They must be notified of construction plans and schedules for special collection areas as soon as these are known, since these areas require unusual attention to protection and security. They must also get advanced notice of the inevitable changes in schedule as a project progresses. Details of responsibility for notification and dissemination of information should be included in the contract specifications and the institution's internal plan for project management.

It is ideal to appoint a project liaison, either from the staff or as a hired consultant. The project liaison should make sure that evacuation procedures are in place and that the staff is appropriately trained to use them. This person should coordinate a fire-fighting plan with the local fire-fighting unit, and should work in conjunction with local officials and the contractor to insure that applicable regulations are being met. The liaison should also coordinate security arrangements with staff and contractors.

The project liaison should review all contracts and specifications to insure adequate protection for collections as well as recovery in the event of damage. This should be done with the advice of the institution's legal counsel. Responsibility and contract specifications should be established for such necessary practices as on-going clean-up or sealing of areas to prevent pollutant migration and water damage. It is equally important that the contract specify the contractor's responsibility for salvage (personnel, freezing and drying collections, dehumidification of spaces, clean-up) and for restoration activities (microfilming, binding, photocopying, and conservation).

Specifications for safety practices for crew members during construction or renovations should be detailed in the contract. All smoking, eating, and drinking should be forbidden in work areas. Although library staff will most likely have primary responsibility for the handling of collections, workmen should be made aware of the vulnerability of collections and should be trained to handle books, boxes, and other materials with care if handling becomes necessary.

The contract should specify fire-protection management responsibility; normally such a function is filled by the contractor's or construction manager's staff. In addition, a client staff member should, daily, inspect collection areas affected by construction, to insure that protective wraps or seals are in place before construction starts, that clean-up is being provided, that fire and water protections are satisfactory, and that suitable ventilation is available for the use of solvents and coatings or other sources of gaseous pollutants. This person should also be responsible for advising administration of the status of the collections on a regular basis. Ideally, this would be someone other than the project liaison, but monetary and staff resources may be such that no one else can fill this role.

The staff should review the provisions of their disaster plan to make sure critical services can be rapidly obtained, and that personnel understand their role in an emergency. Phone numbers and the staff-notification system should be reviewed internally, and with the police or fire department as necessary. Immediate response procedures in the event of fire or flood should be reviewed with the contractor, staff, and local services.

A backup for catalog and inventory records for the current collection should be available in duplicate and should be stored off site. While off-site storage of backup records is recommended at all times, it is essential during renovation. For computerized records, a secondary storage site needs to be chosen and a duplication schedule established. Depending on the volume of data entry, records should be duplicated daily or weekly, and the duplicate transferred to the off-site storage location. If data entry volume is small, daily or weekly backups could be stored on site, with monthly backups at the off-site location. Hard-copy catalog and inventory records require at a minimum a duplicate shelf/storage location list, which should be stored off site. Any original (master) microfilms stored on site should be relocated. The location of master films should be documented.

The disaster plan should also include (for confidential staff and possibly fire-fighter use) the locations of collections or objects that have a high priority for salvage. These should receive preferential attention in an emergency.

Fire Hazards

The second most common cause of library fires (arson is the first) is construction or renovation. Workmen often use heaters, mechanical equipment, and torches. Potentially dangerous situations include the installation of heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment, roof replacement, plumbing, and paint removal. Masonry removal, duct work, sprinklers, and electrical wiring also pose fire hazards.

Books and paper burn readily. Smoke and soot produce odors and can chemically damage paper and bindings. It is often impossible to remove all residual soot; anyone handling smoke-damaged collections will pick up the soot on his or her hands and transfer it to interior pages or to other books and papers in the collection. The intrinsic value of materials in special collections can be destroyed or severely diminished in the event of a fire.

NFPA's Standard for the Protection of Cultural Resources Including Museums, Libraries, Places of Wroship, and Historic Properties (NFPA 909) provides a brief summary of precautions necessary during renovations. Other pertinent NFPA publications are suggested at the end of this leaflet.

Fire Safety Precautions
Enhanced fire protection and emergency procedures must be in place before any construction employing electrical, mechanical, or heat-producing equipment begins.

Existing alarm systems should be inspected before any construction activities take place. Inspection should consider sensors and the integrity of their connection to the police and/or fire department or other monitor. The detection system should be tested weekly for the duration of the project. It is critical to specify that electrical work and replacement or augmentation of fire-sensing equipment will not result in discontinuity of fire protection during non-working hours.

The fire-safety practice of the construction crew should be evaluated by the project liaison. State or local regulations may require construction crew supervisors and journeyman workers to be trained in the use of extinguishers; most laborers are not. Ask the contractor to specify what procedures crew members will follow in the event of fire. Appropriate portable extinguishers (usually ABC-type) must be available and visible in the vicinity of any construction activities. Extinguishers can be moved with work crews as work progresses. Staff members should also know where extinguishers are located and how to use them. If there is an institutional safety officer, he or she should be able to provide or arrange for this training. The local fire marshal or fire department is often a good source of training.

Smoldering fires caused by welding or cutting may be slow to be detectable. The contract should specify protections such as halting heat-generating operations early in the construction day and posting a 30-minute (or longer) fire watch immediately afterward. See Dale Frens, Temporary Protection, and NFPA publications for additional detailed recommendations for fire safety during construction activities.

Water Hazards

Water is a major hazard to the survival of paper-based materials. It can cause glues to dissolve, books, paper, and parchment to swell and deform, bindings to fall off, inks to run, and coated papers (glossy paper) to stick together permanently. Some photographs dissolve, while others stick together. Wet collections are highly susceptible to mold damage, which may be irreversible.

Roof and skylight replacement, the installation of pipes, fan coils, or sprinklers, and the excavation and removal of existing plumbing all pose flooding hazards during renovations. In addition, water draining into light fixtures can create a fire hazard. Areas vulnerable to broken pipes, leaks, or flooding should be identified. Roofs are highly vulnerable to damage from the weight of human traffic. A frequent cause of leaks in an already faulty system is roof evaluation or pilot work by the contractor.

Water Protection
Potential water damage will be decreased by the fire protections above, since water from fire-fighting efforts can cause extensive damage. The contractor needs to be made aware of the special vulnerability of collection materials to damage from water and mold. The client institution should specify that any area of a roof under construction will be completely secured against water infiltration before work stops each day. The project liaison should review the contract to see what provisions it contains for covering areas of the roof while work is in progress and should regularly check for compliance. A routine check of construction locations should be made at closing. These cautions pertain to skylights and patches as well as to full-scale roofing projects.

No area of roof over collection spaces should be left open unless workmen are present. Sheeting or tarps are insufficient protection over night or over weekends unless they are completely secured at joints and edges, and drainage is provided. This can be achieved by slanting coverings toward functional drainage routes. Heavy rain can pool in a flat covering; when buildup is sufficient, the covering could collapse, deluging spaces below.

Staff should always be notified about areas of skylight and roof work at least 48 hours in advance. The staff also needs to be notified 48 hours in advance when work requiring the removal or trial of water-bearing systems is scheduled, so that waterproof protections can be provided for collections, or collections can be temporarily relocated. Collections can be draped with polyethylene, but if drapes leave gaps or cover only the upper levels of stacks, they may shed water on anything in dripping range below them.

All protections should be treated and rated for fire resistance by Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Drapes should cover an entire storage unit, and should be long enough to reach slightly farther than the floor. Shelf units should be completely covered. All collections must be shelved or placed on water-resistant pallets at least 4" off the floor. Water alarms should be installed in any area containing irreplaceable research materials or artifacts. These alarms can be wired into automatic monitoring systems.

The police, the contractor, the project liaison, or other authorized personnel should know the location and operating procedures for all water mains governing pipes to building areas. Phone numbers for authorized personnel should be immediately available at all times. If a pipe is accidently ruptured, or a sprinkler system fails at any point during installation or testing, the water must be shut off at its source without delay. These provisions must be made in advance, and qualified/authorized personnel must be available on a 24-hour basis (ideally on site, from building maintenance or security departments if the institution is large enough to have such staff).

Freezer facilities, and dehumidification and water clean-up services listed in the disaster plan should be contacted by the staff or project liaison to make sure telephone numbers are current, and that services remain available in an emergency.

Procedures for the salvage of wet materials should be reviewed by the staff, so that fast, appropriate action can be taken in the event of an emergency.

Abrasion and Chemical Damage

Plaster dust, sawdust, and other particulates filter onto, then into collections. They abrade paper and act as a catalyst for chemical damage. They are spread by air-handling systems, normal air currents, and traffic from one area to another.

Gases or fumes from plumbing and electrical work, paint and coatings, and epoxy-based construction materials (including much plywood, particle board, and insulating material) are similarly distributed. Many of these will react with moisture in books and paper to produce acids or other detrimental chemical reactions. It is critical to provide adequate ventilation to prevent fumes from solvents and other restoration or cleaning agents from creating a fire hazard, damaging collections, or exposing staff and users to health hazards.

Protection from Construction Materials
It is extremely important to control dust, grit, and other abrasives as much as possible by constructing temporary barriers (e.g., framing and sheeting), by hanging tarpaulins or drapes over book shelves, and by providing between-room or area seals in stack and storage spaces. All such protections must be of fire-retardant materials. Air-handling systems must not be tested unless physical protection for collections is in place, and until obvious particulate residues have been removed. If this recommendation is ignored, dust, grit, and other particulates will be distributed throughout a building.

Here again, the project liaison or other appropriate person should review the contract to see what routine clean-up, protection of building contents, and pollutant controls have been specified. The contractor is committed to provide reasonable protections for building occupants and contents where those are not specified by contract. The definition of "reasonable" or other defining terminology with respect to the collection's materials should be articulated.

If the contractor is not responsible for constructing barriers or temporary compartmentalization during construction, the staff will require at least 48-hour (or more) notice of work in collection areas so the collections can be relocated or protected, and so users can be warned which collections will be inaccessible. If regular staff must prepare the collections, expect routine services to be severely interrupted.

To the extent that sections of the building (e.g., floors, rooms) can be compartmentalized, they will be protected from dust and fumes generated in other areas. Effective protections may include fire-retardant framed barriers along the route of HVAC installation (floor excavations, masonry openings, duct and pipe installations). To prevent the migration of dust, such barriers need to include a ceiling and a mechanism for exhausting plaster, sawdust, fumes, etc. out of the building.

Openings between rooms or levels may pose particular problems. Such openings need to be sealed before construction begins. Sheeting fastened with tape or staples could be used, if it meets fire safety requirements, if plaster/paint layers will permit, and if fire exit routes are not obstructed. If fastenings would unacceptably damage the walls, it may be necessary to create framed barriers.

If compartmentalization is not possible, tarps or drapes may be sufficient to protect collections, which would remain accessible. Given the potential fire and health hazards (for workmen) of poorly ventilated compartments in construction areas, however, it may be better to seal and package collections themselves, e.g., shrink wrap or box books. Sealed wraps should extend from the top of each shelf unit to the floor, and from wall to wall. Emergency access to volumes would be possible by slitting the wraps and sealing the slits with duct tape after a book or box has been replaced. This should be kept to a minimum, since dust will penetrate with each opening, and the drapes themselves will deteriorate.

While wraps, drapes, and compartmentalization will provide some protection, construction-related grime is so pervasive that damage needs to be controlled by regular cleaning. Dust cannot be allowed to accumulate for the several years a project may require. There should be a clean-up (vacuuming, dusting of books and furniture) as each phase of construction is completed in each area. Back-pack or hand-held vacuums are extremely useful for this kind of cleaning. Disposable-bag vacuums are preferred. If the contractor is not responsible for this cleaning it will be necessary to assign the task to regular or temporary maintenance staff. Remember that routine services will be interrupted or compromised if regular staff must also provide this maintenance.

A complete shelf-by-shelf and item-by-item cleaning of all areas needs to be scheduled at the end of any renovation.


A construction project often requires that workmen have unsupervised access to areas of a building that are normally closed to the public. To protect the collection from vandalism and theft, the staff must be notified of work schedules so that they can routinely (e.g., daily, before closing) inspect areas where work is taking place. This should help identify losses or other problems rapidly, so corrective actions can be taken.

Areas containing special or rare collections should be closed to workmen (by locked doors) unless staff assigned to these collections can be present. Special collections staff should provide unobtrusive, but visible, supervision while construction-related activities are taking place. Daily inspections of special collections areas following construction activities are essential.

If unusual routes (security doors, temporary openings, or windows) are opened to expedite traffic, they must be closed when workmen leave the area. An entire facility is more vulnerable to vandalism during construction activities.


Collections are exposed to predictable, increased hazards and potential loss during renovation. While it is impossible to foresee every danger or prevent all damage, it is imperative to protect collections from destructive factors that can be anticipated. A checklist of major recommendations follows.


____ a.  

Staff of the institution have read pertinent literature and become familiar with risks and precautions common to construction projects.

____ b.

Responsibility for protecting collections from dirt, fire, and water is specified by contract. Specifications include the form protections will take and identify the party responsible for installation and maintenance.

____ c.

A project liaison is assigned (or hired) to work in close cooperation with administration, the contractor, and collections' staff liaison to insure protections are implemented and maintained.

____ d.

The disaster plan has been reviewed and updated in the light of recommendations throughout this leaflet and additional readings. It includes a means of identifying losses (e.g., catalog or shelf-list duplication) in the event of a major disaster. Salvage priorities have been identified by the staff.

____ e.

Emergency response supplies (e.g., sponges, paper towels, polyethylene sheeting) are on hand. Additional sources of supply and funds for purchase are identified.

Fire Safety

____ a.  

Current safety practices, detection system, and suppression equipment have been evaluated and improved as necessary before commencement of construction activities.

____ b.

Expert opinions have been sought from the institution's safety officer or the local fire marshal regarding necessary precautions, specifications for fire-retardant materials for the construction of dust barriers, and fire-fighting plans.

____ c.

An emergency evacuation procedure has been designed and rehearsed. Staff are familiar with procedures (which are provided in writing) and are trained in their use.

____ d.

Routine monitoring of safety precautions is provided by the institution's staff.

Water Hazards

____ a.  

The contractor and his representatives have been told in writing of the irreversible damage water can produce in paper-based collections. The contract specifies the increased precautions that the contractor's representatives will exercise in collection areas.

____ b.

Contractual specifications include securing the roof against water infiltration during work that opens areas of the roof. Routine monitoring is provided by the institution's staff.

____ c.

Temporary barriers (e.g., fire-retardant waterproof sheeting) are constructed to prevent water from draining onto collections and through floors during pauses in construction activities.

____ d.

If water-related construction will impact special collection areas, water alarms have been installed. Response procedures in the event of alarm have been designed and rehearsed. The contractor, security team, and other professionals are informed of the provisions of this plan.

____ e.

Salvage procedures for water-damaged materials have been reviewed.

Abrasion and Chemical Damage

____ a.  

Responsibility and procedures for controlling particulate and gaseous pollutants generated by construction activities are specified.

____ b.

Where possible, collections have been temporarily relocated away from construction areas.

____ c.

Arrangements have been made to compartmentalize spaces, erect barriers, and/or wrap collections on the shelves as necessary to protect them from the spread of particulate and gaseous materials.

____ d.

Interim and post-construction cleanup programs have been designed. Responsibility has been specified and the institution's staff have been assigned to monitor compliance and performance.

____ e.

Adequate ventilation has been specified for construction activities that will generate significant chemical fumes (e.g., paint removal). Compliance is monitored by the institution's staff.


____ a.  

The contractor will notify the client in advance of work schedules and changes so that security can be maintained.

____ b.

Workmen cannot enter limited-access collection storage without staff knowledge. Workmen do not have access to high-security areas without direct staff supervision.

Suggested Further Reading

Frens, Dale H. Temporary Protection: Specifying Temporary Protection of Historic Interiors During Construction and Repair. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1993, 8 pp. Preservation Tech Notes No. 2. Available from Tech Notes, Preservation Assistance Division, National Park Service, P.O. Box 37127, Washington, DC 20013.

An excellent introduction to protecting a building from accidental damage and losses during renovation activities. Greatest detail is provided for fire safety.

National Fire Protection Association. Standard for the Protection of Cultural Resources Including Museums, Libraries, Places of Worship, and Historic Properties (NFPA 909); Standard for the Protection of Records, 2000 edition (NFPA 232); and Safeguarding Building Construction and Demolition Operations (NFPA 241). Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association, avg. 25 pp.

Causes, prevention, detection, and suppression of fire in each type of repository or operations are discussed. Contain descriptions and standards for fire-detection/suppression equipment, synopsis of the role of the institution's staff in fire protection, and a bibliography of resources. Each includes a useful self-inspection checklist. Many other codes and standards are available. Contact NFPA at 1 Batterymarch Park, P.O. Box 9101, Quincy, MA 02269-9101, Telephone: (800) 344-3555.


Written by Karen Motylewski


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