Expect the unexpected

Recently, I attended the two-day Emergency Response and Salvage Workshop held by the Archives Association of Ontario at the City of Ottawa Archives. Sixteen people attended from a variety of backgrounds and institutions in Ontario. The instructor for the session, Iona McCraith, is a seasoned veteran, with a career spanning more than 30 years as a preservation consultant and archival materials conservator. This was a great opportunity to discuss with other professionals in the field how to create and maintain a disaster plan and—more importantly—how to react, including ways to organize staff and emergency responders in the event of a disaster.

James Bartleman Archives and Library Materials Centre building in Ottawa

James Bartleman Archives and Library Materials Centre in Ottawa. Winner of the Ontario Association for Architects (OAA) Design Excellence award in 2015.

windows with etched handwriting on them

Time to read the writing on the walls, er windows! Windows have been etched with the notes written in the 1820s by Samuel Clowes, the original Rideau Canal surveyor.

Although we already have a disaster plan for the National Currency Collection, Ms. McCraith offered some great resource information and suggested ways to update and improve our plan. For example, Heritage Preservation publishes a nifty little information wheel that provides invaluable guidance and practical advice for saving collections in the critical 48 hours following a disaster. Like so many things these days, there’s an app for that! Android users can download it for free from Google Play and Apple users with iOS 5.1 or later can get it free through the App Store. The app provides the same reliable content found in the original Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel.

information wheel of disaster responses

Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel. Steps to be taken in the first 48 hours of the disaster.

information wheel of damaged material conservation

This side of the Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel describes how to stabilize and dry various types of materials.

Day two was our chance to get out of the classroom and “into the field,” so to speak. After reviewing the basic disaster tool kit containing masks, coats, gloves, paper towels, etc., we took part in a simulated disaster—in this case a flood. The City of Ottawa Archives generously supplied a variety of documents, books, photographs and electronic records as our test materials. Although we knew that these were disposable items, you could feel the anxiety in this group of museum professionals as we were told to submerge the pieces in water. However, once the first item sank to the bottom of the tray, all bets were off. This was a great opportunity to practice familiar recovery methods and try out new ones we learned in the previous day’s class. Understanding how different materials react to getting wet is essential because 80 per cent of disasters involve water (e.g., through a flood or a sprinkler being activated in a fire).

paper and media items used as practice materials

A variety of materials were recovered based on the methods outlined on the Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel.

soaked newspaper in a basin

Preservation specialist is assessing the proper method for recovering wet newspaper.

wet paper items laid out on a towel

Laying out the recovered wet material so that it can air dry.

a spool of audio tape soaking in a water tub

According to the salvage wheel, this type of media should remain wet so that it can be safely vacuum freeze-dried at a later date.

conservator separating wet newspapers

Using a microspatula to carefully separate the pages of a waterlogged newspaper.

paper items drying on clothesline

Simple method of drying damp items evenly.

A yearly review and simulations of your disaster plan are critical. As the old adage goes, use it or lose it. We certainly would not want to risk losing our collection by not being prepared. For those who missed this opportunity, be sure to attend the 2016 conference in Montréal, “Emergency! Preparing for Disasters and Confronting the Unexpected in Conservation,” which is being jointly offered by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and the Canadian Association for Conservation. Dates and details of the conference are available on the CAC website.