The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 13, Number 1
Feb 1989


UPC Disaster Workshop

On September 15-16, 135 people from Utah and neighboring states attended a really first class workshop (which was more a symposium, because there were no hands-on sessions): the Utah Preservation Consortium Disaster Planning and Recovery Workshop. It was sponsored by a dozen Utah collection-holding institutions, and held in the Brigham Young University Convention Center. The ten speakers covered preparedness and response to several kinds of disaster in libraries, archives and museums. The proceedings were taped and will be published. There were plenty of informational handouts. Even the program qualified as an informative handout, with a curriculum vitae for each speaker, bibliographies for most of the presentations, 13 pages of checklists (security, flood hazards, etc.), a guide for creating a disaster plan, and a list of attendees with addresses and telephone numbers.

Since the meeting was recorded on tape so that proceedings can be published later, and since it is impossible to do justice to this two-day meeting in a newsletter, just a few excerpts from the talks and discussions are given below, following the speaker's name.

Sandra Wright (National Archives of Canada) recommends Hilda Bohem's two-team model (one for prevention, one for action). Action team members can be from other institutions, but you need to educate them about your institution's plan, building layout and so on. It is absolutely essential that one person be in charge (the recovery director). They should be relieved of their other duties during a recovery operation. They don't have to be a conservator, but they should have good administrative ability, which includes human understanding, flexibility, ability to control their emotions and a sense of humor.

Someone asked her how small institutions could prepare disaster plans, since she had said that her institution had been working on theirs for eight years and weren't done yet. She said it was both possible and necessary, by joining cooperative or regional plans. Having others involved can keep it moving even during times of personnel turnover; suppliers can be contacted once for everyone in the group (which they appreciate); joint training programs can be held; and a pool of volunteers can be put together.

Only 14 people raised their hands when asked how many had disaster plans.

John Barton (Archives of Ontario) said that because there was no disaster plan at the time of the Dalhousie University fire in 1985 and people were working at cross purposes, four separate people were asked to head the recovery effort before Eric Lundquist got there with his freeze-dry facilities to organize the recovery. Having a plan does make recovery more efficient, though if you are able to bring in a recovery service like his, he said, you don't need one.

Books and papers are frozen to keep then from molding before they can be dried. It is more important to freeze wet books fast (i.e., blast-freeze them) than to take them down to a given temperature. If you can avoid the freezing stage altogether, you can speed up recovery. One way this can be done is by using portable dehumidifying equipment to dry the books on the shelves: dry air is pumped into the building, and moist air is pumped out. Recovery services using this equipment include Cargocaire, Airdex and BMS CAT.

Eric Lundquist (Document Reprocessors of San Francisco) once tried drying wet books and papers in a microwave oven, but abandoned the method because Acco fasteners set the papers on fire and staples in the bookbindings made the book covers blow up. He does not see the use of separating wet books with wax paper as they are packed to go to the freezer. It only takes precious time. The 20,000 wet books from the fire at Dalhousie University in Halifax were packed in boxes without any separators, and they did not stick together. [Perhaps he overlooked the occasional necessity of separating frozen books, to remove leather books or for some other purpose; one should also remember that books dried by other methods that allow the water to melt rather than to sublimate probably will stick together, and the drying method is not always known at the time of packing.] Leather books can' t be put in the vacuum chamber with other books because they have to be dried at lower temperatures and pressures to avoid damaging then. They should be packed separately for freezing.

Barbara Roberts (Getty Museum) said that people should not give everything up for lost after a fire. Usually many things are salvageable. Let the conservator sort through it. Fire does not burn uniformly, but may skip areas, or bury sound material under burned material.

Jim Tingey (Utah Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management) spoke on "Wasatch Front Earthquakes: Hazards, Risks, and Mitigation," which is serious business, because it necessarily involves death and destruction, but the audience did not become depressed, because the speaker mixed humor into his talk so skillfully. The area at greatest risk, he said, was in downtown Salt Lake City, because it was built-up and so near the fault line, which rums along the Wasatch Front. Emergency response is well organized among all levels of government, to minimize loss of life and property, and to maintain continuity of government function. Barbara Roberts said afterwards that consideration for the safety and salvage of cultural heritage collections was being advocated for inclusion in such government-sponsored plans here and there.

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