A view from the trenches
By Tim Johnson
Anyone who has suffered a natural disaster knows the multitude of emotions connected with such an event: feelings of loss, pain, fatigue, frustration, confusion–the list is nearly endless. Archives and libraries–and their associated staff–are no different. At least a few of us have endured (and survived) professional lives disrupted by flood, fire, earthquake, or other calamity. Among the many questions that linger after such an event is one of paramount importance to archivists and librarians: how can we be better prepared the next time such an event comes our way.
To that end, the Libraries formed a Collections Emergency Response Team. Led by Mary Miller, the Libraries’ Collection Management and Preservation Strategist, this team is engaged in updating and enhancing collections emergency response procedures for the Libraries and the Minnesota Library Access Center (administered by Minitex). University Librarian Wendy Lougee charged the team “with assessing collections emergency preparedness in the Libraries, overseeing emergency planning, and fostering a culture of preparedness in the Libraries through strategic communication, education, and hands-on training. In the event of an emergency involving collections, the team will provide leadership, advice, and assistance to the Libraries during the response and recovery phases.” I was invited–along with nearly a dozen of my colleagues–to be a member of this team.
Sessions led by preservation consultant Julie Page
Hands-on training is an important part of “fostering a culture of preparedness.” In early September the team, along with other members of staff, participated in two days of exercises designed around collection damage assessment and salvage. Our sessions were led by Julie Page, a trainer for the Western States and Territories Preservation Assistance Service (WESTPAS). Julie is the former head of the preservation department at the University of California, San Diego and now serves as a preservation consultant. In addition to her work with WESTPAS, she is a trainer for the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (FAIC) Emergency Response for Cultural Institutions program, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and a member of the American Institute for Conservation Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC CERT).
We were instructed to wear “grubby” clothes, as we would be handling wet books and papers during our training. I was happy for the cautionary instructions. Our first day included a “stack assessment” exercise in Wilson Library. Portions of the stacks on the fourth floor were draped in different colors of crepe paper; blue indicated wet ranges of books, white indicated damp ranges. We divided into smaller teams and headed to an assigned area of the stacks. Once on site, our task was to assess and document the number damaged books, assign salvage priorities, note anything special about this portion of the collection, and create a sequence of response activities. These activities included activation of a telephone calling tree and notification of University facilities/emergency personnel, all designed to insure staff safety and a proper approach to an incident of this kind. In a debriefing session following this exercise, Julie emphasized the importance of an accurate assessment. The assessment drives much of what follows in terms of conservation treatments and other actions.
Hands-on training in salvage techniques
In the afternoon of our first day, following an introduction to salvage techniques and response issues, we ventured outside for a second hands-on exercise. Here we were exposed to, and instructed on, the correct handling for damp or wet books and papers. We practiced air-drying damp volumes, wrapping and packing saturated volumes, safe handling and drying of wet papers and record cartons, and treatments for other types of media such as microfilm or compact discs. In a real-life scenario much of this work would have been conducted indoors, but we wished to spare the interior of Andersen Library from any water damage during the exercise. It was amazing to see how much moisture books can absorb or how fragile an item or page becomes when wet.
Having survived the first day of mock disasters, we entered the second day more knowledgeable, yet humbled and eager to learn more. The major training of the day involved a “tabletop” exercise that presented us with a cascading series of events. Most of the incidents we might face in the future–so statistics and the risk management folks tell us–involve water. So, having divided ourselves into two teams, we were given a storm scenario. Faced with a series of spring storms, high winds, and extremely heavy rainfall, Wilson Library (on a Sunday afternoon) experienced “water all over the floor and collapsed ceiling tiles on the west side of the fourth floor….You have been called in to provide guidance and assistance.” The scenario indicated that our group had assembled in Wilson Library and was starting to assess the situation when a second call came from library staff on the St. Paul campus informing us of a second event involving more water and wet books. Our teams energetically worked through the steps outlined in our response plan as we tackled the scenario. At two points during our interactions Julie injected new events. The first involved two feet of water at the foundation level in Walter Library on Monday morning; the second occurred later on Monday morning, with water leaking into the Wangensteen Library and damage to a small number of rare books. These injections complicated the scenario and led us to think about related matters such as staff fatigue, meal breaks, security, and communications.
Workshop will result in a better emergency response plan
While the scenario (and its two injections) might seem unrealistic, we know from experience that such things could happen. We were presented with a robust set of circumstances that tested our situational awareness and previous training. One of the goals of the tabletop exercise was to put the draft of our current response plan through its paces, testing how well this document functioned under the stress of an active scenario. By the time we completed the exercise our copies of the response plan were littered with additional notations with suggestions for improved clarity or re-working. It was an extremely valuable drill that will result in a better plan.
Following a final debriefing, we concluded our training on collection assessment and salvage. I’m sure more training sessions and conversations will follow as we refine our emergency response plans for the collections. A special word of thanks goes to Mary Miller and other members of the staff for organizing this two-day session, and to Julie Page for her expertise in guiding our team toward better readiness and response. We hope such disastrous days will never come, but know at some point the inevitable will happen. The strength of our training and a commitment to developing a culture of preparedness will keep us vigilant and ready for such a day.
(Tim Johnson is Curator of Special Collections and Rare Books; E. W. McDiarmid Curator of the Sherlock Holmes Collections. This article originally appeared in “Primary Sourcery,” a University of Minnesota Libraries blog.)