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Session 8: Emergency Preparedness


responding to disaster

1 Initial Response and Assessment

During a disaster, what steps need to be taken to deal with the affected materials? The primary directives are to stabilize the condition of collections so no further damage occurs, and to salvage the maximum number of valuable materials. Time is a crucial factor. If conditions are wet and warm, mold can develop in less than 48 hours. A mold outbreak will compromise your ability to recover collections materials successfully and can also pose serious health risks.

It is helpful to assign responsibility for response and recovery efforts in advance of an emergency. A designated emergency recovery director (and an alternate) should be in charge of implementing the plan and coordinating recovery efforts. This person could be the institution's director, or it might be someone else who reacts calmly in an emergency.

Initial response lasts from the time an emergency is first noted to the time that packing and removal begins. The basic steps in initial response are described below. Depending on the scope of the disaster, some of these actions may be carried out concurrently, while some may not be needed at all.

  • Notify the appropriate personnel. Use the emergency call list to contact those appointed as initial responders. If it is outside of working hours, keep calling until you find someone who can respond.

  • If necessary, get clearance to enter the site. If serious damage has occurred, it may be necessary to wait until the appropriate officials declare the building safe to enter. Re-entry to the site may also be delayed if hazardous materials are present, or if the building is a crime scene (as in the case of arson). If re-entry to the building is delayed, work must proceed from an off-site command center that has been designated ahead of time. An established relationship with local emergency responders and knowing how their systems and practices work can facilitate re-entry as well as keep staff and collections safe. For additional information, refer to the Heritage Preservation pamphlet Working with Emergency Responders.

  • Begin to determine the extent of the damage. What actually happened? How serious is the damage? How many and what type of materials are affected (e.g., general collections, local history materials, audiovisual materials, computers and data, plain paper, coated paper)?

  • Make a detailed damage assessment. Remember to take photos or video and document the damage in writing.

  • Call the insurance company or in-house contact (for self-insurance). Contact information should be provided in the disaster plan.

  • Get advice from a preservation professional. Unless the disaster is very small, it is likely that you will want to contact a preservation professional to ensure that you are responding properly. In the event of a major disaster, you may need to arrange for a professional to provide on-site assistance. See the listings for Emergency Response Services on the Regional Alliance for Preservation website.

  • Determine what additional personnel will be needed. Staff members, volunteers, and/or temporary workers may be needed. Develop a system to keep track of personnel and ensure that everyone is properly trained.

  • Establish a command center for the recovery effort. Potential sites should have been identified ahead of time.

  • Establish security procedures for the recovery site. Only authorized persons should be allowed to enter the site; some type of identification (e.g., badges, vests) should be arranged.

  • Decide what will be salvaged and what will be discarded. Remember that the salvage priorities that were determined ahead of time may need to be adjusted according to the extent and/or type of damage.

  • Decide how the materials to be salvaged will be treated. Treatment options will be discussed in this session. For wet collections, sort the materials, separating those to be frozen from those to be air-dried. As you begin sorting and moving materials, it is essential to keep track of collections at all times.

  • Determine if it will be necessary to relocate collections. A large space may be needed for air-drying, or collections may need to be stored elsewhere temporarily to protect them from danger while the building and damaged collections are salvaged.

  • Gather supplies and arrange for services. Again, information should have been collected prior to the disaster, and an emergency supply kit should be available.

  • Stabilize the building and environment. Do not turn up the heat; this will not dry out the space and may encourage mold growth. If the outdoor humidity is low, open the windows. If the climate control system is working, use it to provide as much cooling and dehumidification as possible. Your goal should be to keep the temperature below 70°F and the humidity as much below 50% as possible. Wet furniture or carpeting should be removed and any standing water should be cleaned up with caution. If the climate control system is not sufficient to reduce the temperature and humidity to the desired levels, building dry-out services will be needed. Monitor the temperature and humidity in the recovery area several times a day to ensure that the desired conditions are reached and maintained for the duration of the recovery effort.

  • Communicate with the media and the public. It is important to inform patrons and other interested parties of the extent of the damage and the progress of recovery efforts. It is also crucial that one person be responsible for all interaction with the media and the public.

2 Salvaging Collections

Once you have determined what needs to be salvaged, what are your options for stabilizing damaged materials? In most cases, you will be dealing with water-damaged collections that need to be dried. It is very important to realize that collections will not be restored by the drying process. If response was slow and collections became significantly distorted, they will remain distorted when dry. If collections are dried quickly, however, visible damage may be minimal.

General Drying Options

Several methods are available for drying wet books and records:

  • Air Drying—most appropriate for small numbers of damp or slightly wet collections
  • Dehumidification Drying—most effective for buildings that have suffered extensive water damage and for collections that have suffered only slight to moderate water damage
  • Freezer Drying—suitable for a modest number of books that are damp or moderately wet
  • Thermaline or Cryogenic Drying—a new drying technique designed for rare book and manuscript collections, particularly leather and vellum
  • Vacuum Freeze Drying—the best option for large numbers of wet books and records and for those with water-soluble inks and/or coated paper (Note that materials usually must be frozen locally first and later transported to a vacuum freeze drying facility.)

Recovering Specific Types of Collections

Different types of collections have specific recovery needs. Drying methods that work well for some books and documents may not be appropriate for other types of collections. It is essential to familiarize yourself with salvage recommendations for all types of materials held by your institution.

Salvage of Specific Collections

Explore the Minnesota Historical Society's Emergency Salvage Procedures for Wet Items web page. This page provides salvage instructions for the various types of collections found in libraries, archives, historical societies, and other cultural heritage institutions.

Heritage Preservation, in partnership with the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, created ERS: Emergency Response and Salvage, a smartphone app version of its helpful Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel.

3 Working with a Disaster Recovery Vendor

The scale or complexity of a collections disaster may require you to seek additional help from a disaster recovery vendor. These commercial service providers typically offer the following services:

  • Pack out (boxing materials from your facility)
  • Transportation (to their facility and back to yours)
  • Freezing (for paper-based collections, buys time to make decisions and inhibits mold growth)
  • Vacuum freeze-drying (dries books and paper-based records)
  • Surface cleaning (to remove dirt and contaminants from the paper)
  • Inventorying (to itemize the items taken into custody)
  • Re-housing (for example, to transfer archival records to new archival boxes)
  • Digitization (in the event of a decision to destroy or discard the original records)
  • Destruction (of those materials beyond salvage)
  • Retrieval of records (if you need access to damaged items immediately)

Additionally, some disaster recovery vendors may charge for storage of collections, labor beyond services (packing, unpacking, cleaning of disaster sites, etc.), equipment use, and special handling of complex formats such as audiovisual collections.

Disaster recovery vendors have a different role from regional preservation organizations who can advise on the creation of disaster plans and guide a response; additionally, they are not professional conservators who can remediate extensive damage to high-value items. Consider disaster recovery vendors for responses to large-scale disasters that are beyond the scope of internal staff time or expertise. Their primary role should be to stabilize the affected materials (usually by freezing), to dry water-damaged materials (freeze-drying, vacuum drying, or air drying) and to remediate mold outbreaks.

The Disaster Recovery Contract

Ideally, the time to build a relationship with a disaster recovery vendor is before a disaster. The Library of Congress Preservation Directorate created a model Collections Emergency Response Contract to aid cultural heritage institutions in the process of developing a contract for collections emergency response. The model contract describes the services and associated requirements for stabilization and recovery of affected collections when an institution is confronted with a disaster over a certain magnitude

When working with a disaster recovery vendor, keep the following tips in mind:

  • be clear about the services you require
  • ask questions about their methods and equipment
  • ask for references
  • be sure the vendor can handle the recovery of special formats in your collections, particularly media collections
  • request that a sample batch be processed before allowing further work
  • consult local or regional allied organizations for assistance and recommendations


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