Before Disaster Strikes Protect Your Heritage

Simulated Disaster Area

Simulated Disaster Area

Last week I attended the Disaster Preparedness and Response Bootcamp for Mixed Media Collections at METRO co-sponsored by METRO and the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) program at New York University with partial funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Taught by Kara Van Malssen, this course turned out to be unlike any I had ever taken before—down to the advisory warning delivered in the pre-class survey: “be advised that you will get dirty during the course of this workshop, so please dress accordingly.”

When I showed up at the Metropolitan New York Library Council building last Thursday—in my most presentable dirt-resistant outfit—the METRO classroom looked different than I’d ever seen it before: the lights were off, the tables were pushed to one side of the room, and a portion of the open floor was sectioned off with caution tape. This hazardous quadrant was our “simulated disaster area,” which was filled with jumbled piles of books, magazines, photographs, reels of audio tape, vinyl records, VHS tapes, DVDs, and reels of film, some of which were soaking in tubs of dirty water while the rest lay around the floor in damp disarray. Though these were only simulated archival materials (like a commercial copy of blockbuster flop Dracula 2000 and bunch of copies of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York’s mass publication Allegro magazine), I still felt an overwhelming urge to jump over the caution tape and start frantically pulling items out of the water.

paper drying station

paper drying station

We were greeted by Kara who started the simulation by thanking us for volunteering our time to save this valuable collection, explaining the situation as she knew it, and introducing us to the other players in the drama. In this manner, Kara and her teaching aids guided my fellow classmates and me through all the steps in a real disaster-recovery operation. I had no idea how much needs to be done in a disaster response before the team even begins to pick up and clean the damaged items. The team members need to talk to the police and building maintenance staff to determine if it is safe to enter the disaster area; document the extent of the damage; confer with collection staff to learn about the types of materials, layout of the facilities, and preservation priorities; assess the extent of the damage; identify and procure necessary supplies; set up the space for recovery activities; figure out the necessary tasks and most productive workflow; and establish a documentation strategy to record all the recovery activities. Only once all of those key steps were completed could my fellow classmates and I finally begin what I used to, before last week, think was the entirety of disaster recovery: removing items from our simulated disaster area and cleaning and drying them.

moving image items - cleaned and drying!

moving image items – cleaned and drying!

By framing the class as if it were a real disaster and leading the class through all the appropriate steps, Kara helped us learn from our mistakes (like our gigantic and painstakingly thought-out supply list did not contain isopropyl alcohol, which, after distilled water, is one of the most important supply needed for cleaning dirty and contaminated audiovisual items). This approach also facilitated drawing conclusions about key actions that can be taken before an emergency, which will help dramatically in a disaster situation.

Superstorm Sandy made those of us in NYC and surrounding areas painfully aware of the devastating effects sudden disasters can have on archival collections. Thanks to this class, I feel better prepared to deal with a future disaster whether it be a leaky pipe or another superstorm. Below are a few recommendations from Kara, the teaching aides, fellow students, and me to help your organization become better prepared too!

Pre-disaster Guidelines to Prepare Your Organization

  • Regularly update the collection inventory. Store up-to-date inventory printouts in multiple locations (including off-site) to ensure that there is an accessible and readable copy available in the event of a disaster. Note preservation priorities: items that are fragile, valuable, unique, etc.
  • Make a modern-day disaster phone tree. Make sure that your emergency phone tree of staff, volunteers, and specialists includes all forms of contact information (landline, cell, email, Facebook, Twitter, IM, etc.). You never know what lines of communication will be open during or after a disaster.
  • Create a disaster resource file. Assemble important resources: contact list for key organizations (police, fire department, building maintenance staff, insurance company, disaster cleanup companies, etc.), maps of collection areas (note pipes, wires, outlets, etc.), Heritage Preservation’s Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel (now an app!), etc. Give hard copies to key staff.
  • Call your insurance company now. Calling your insurance company is one of the first things to do when a disaster occurs. But by calling them now, you can find out what sort of information and proof they want in the event of a disaster and prepare. For example, if they like before and after pictures, then take the before ones now and store copies safely.
  • Store materials safely. Do not store anything on the floor, cover all materials, avoid keeping items below ground level if possible, and keep stored materials away from windows and exposed pipes.
  • Label all parts of each item. A DVD, its plastic case, and its paper insert all need to be separated and treated/cleaned differently in a disaster. If each piece is not labeled, then getting all three back together again can be difficult. Especially for audiovisual items, crucial information can easily be lost this way.
  • MAKE A DISASTER KIT! Assemble key disaster supplies (e.g, distilled water, isopropyl alcohol, paper towel, gloves, masks, ERS Wheel, and other essential materials). Store in a plastic water-tight container (tall, lidded: wheeled garbage bins work well). Note, this will not have everything you will eventually need in a disaster, but will allow you to get started with first response.

Useful Resources

  • Heritage Preservation

Resources for Emergency Planning and Preparedness:

  • US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

A Primer on Disaster Preparedness, Management and Response: Paper-Based Materials:

Records Emergency Toolkit:

  • Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC)

dPlan: The Online Disaster Planning Tool for Cultural and Civic Institutions:


Disaster Preparedness and Response Bootcamp for Mixed Media Collections:

Disaster Recovery Resources:

  • AudioVisual Preservation Solutions

Disaster Response Information & Assistance:

About Patsy Gay:

Currently serving as project associate for the Dance Heritage Coalition, Patsy’s archive experience includes organizing the collections of  Eiko & Koma, David Gordon, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and currently with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. She received her B.A. at Case Western Reserve University in Theater Arts (Dance) and Art History and her M.A. at The Florida State University in American Dance Studies.Patsy is an Adjunct Instructor with Florida State University’s FSU in NYC program and is the Archivist and Administrative Assistant for the Pick Up Performance Co(s).