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Preparing for Disaster: Recovering Wet Materials
by Julia Merkel

Last May I spent a week at an intensive training session, The Recovery of Wet Materials Following a Disaster. The session was presented by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works in partnership with the National Park Service at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Program funding was also provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Preservation and Access Grant, and by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The instructors, M.J. Davis and Barbara Moore, are both conservators in private practice. M.J. Davis specializes in paper conservation and has certification from the Straus Center at Harvard. Barbara Moore has a graduate diploma in conservation from the University of London and has held positions at the Peabody and the Strong Museums among others. Guest instructors Monona Rossol and Gary Albright addressed safety and health factors in disaster mitigation and recovery of photographic materials, respectively. Monona Rossol, an artist, research chemist and industrial hygienist, gained notoriety for co-authoring with Cate Jenkins, a senior chemist at the EPA, a memo to the NYC Department of Health criticizing their disregard of federal asbestos abatement laws in the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse. Gary Albright is the conservator at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Previously, he was senior paper/photograph conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Center for 19 years.

Sixteen participating conservators and curators from across the country were in attendance including six members of the National Parks Service’s Museum Emergency Response Team. Other institutions represented were the National Archives, the Charleston Museum, the LA County Museum and the Balboa Conservation Center, and the Hagley Library among others. Several of the participants are instructors themselves; the collective experience of the group was remarkable. The NPS Emergency Response Team has been very active and well-versed in setting up “incident command centers” responding to Hurricanes Isabel and Ivan while many of the other participants also had first-hand experience in disaster recovery efforts.

The workshop was a combination of lectures, salvage exercises, and hands-on laboratory experiments. Because the workshop spanned a five day period, participants were able to rehearse a disaster salvage effort by subjecting a variety of materials to water damage, tracking their condition over 48 hours and experimenting with drying techniques appropriate and/or inappropriate to the material composition of the collection materials. In real-life disasters, access to compromised collections may not be possible within the first 48 hour window as first the area must be stabilized by emergency personnel. Establishing the structure of the salvage operation and having pre-existing contingency plans in place beforehand buys precious time. Being ready to react quickly once the area is cleared for non-emergency personnel is important because the threat of mold looms large after 48 hours.

A basic structure for a wet salvage operation is: define roles, establish communication methods, procure supplies, assess damage, triage into damp, wet and soaked categories, and stabilize the collections accordingly. Pack out what can be transported wet. Shore up what cannot be easily moved. Know what to dry and vacuum and what to rinse.

The type of floodwater guides decision-making as well. For instance, the salts in sea water are corrosive while freshwater floods can be chemically active soups of solvents, sewage, etc. Is it the upper Mississippi or the lower?  Source is most definitely a factor. Rainwater is full of whatever was in the atmosphere on its way down. Even the spray from fire hoses can pose problems—high pressure spray can make hazardous particles such as asbestos airborne. In Ms. Rossol’s lecture she stated: “Asbestos doesn’t care if it’s wet or dry—it will kill you either way!”

Freezing can buy time in a wet salvage effort, but the logistics and volume can be prohibitively expensive. Freezers were in limited supply after Ivan and Isabel, and collections are lower priority than food supplies in a regional disaster. It is also interesting to note that a conservator’s code of ethics is compromised in a salvage operation much like a physician’s is in a triage situation.

The lectures covered several relevant topics including: salvage guidelines and priorities, drying techniques, disaster residues, re-entry health & safety (regulatory requirements, mold, and air quality standards), salvaging specific materials (from libraries to art museum to natural history collections), structure and identification of photographic and electronic media. Helpful discussions ranged from experiences with commercial vendors to which freeze drying methods are most effective for specific materials. For example, vacuum freeze drying, cryogenic or thermaline drying are all acceptable practices, but vacuum thermal drying = cooking and should be avoided. Hidden costs of freezing vs. air drying need to be considered. Air dried books often require commercial re-binding and require considerably more shelf space. On the other hand, there are often hidden costs with freeze drying as well: shipping and handling, minimum charges…even shipping containers and crates can be added expenses. Eighty dollars per cubic foot is a rough estimate for freeze drying library materials.

Monona Rossol shared several practical, entertaining, and terrifying tips regarding industrial hygiene:

  • Nitrile gloves are not approved for chemical use.
  • Latex is only good for water, blood and soap.
  • The most serious allergic reactants are not considered toxic.
  • The Department of Homeland Security is now God—they define national disaster sites—not the EPA, not FEMA.
  • You can’t be fitted for a respirator if you wear a beard.
  • The most expensive worker that can be hired does not speak English.”
  • (threat of injury claims)
  • Liability is the only thing that makes safety work.
  • De-greasers are non-standardized—citrus oil is a registered pesticide.
  • It may be natural, but Mother Nature is out to get you.
  • After a flood, cut out wallboard above the water line.
  • Carpet is a sink. If it’s been wet more than 48 hours, it must go.
  • There are 80,000 chemicals in the work place, and only 800 have been tested. The rest are labeled non-toxic by default.

Those of you who were in Carrier Library this summer when it was evacuated for a strong chemical odor during the re-roofing project may appreciate another of Ms. Rossol’s comments: “air sampling is a joke.”  Standards vary as to what are acceptable parts per million between the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists (NCGIH) and OSHA regulations, which are “seriously out-of-date.”  (79,200 chemicals and counting are labeled non-toxic by default simply because the list was created in the 1970’s; no new chemicals have been added to the list since its inception.) 

The workshop reminded me again what a challenge it would be to pull everything together in the event of a disaster.  Several library faculty and staff members, including myself, received further training at a workshop in July, learning or reinforcing skills so that we can respond quickly in a disaster situation. In the meantime, we are using our knowledge and skills to revise and improve to the Library’s Disaster Plan.

Conservation lab with gurneys   Book in floodwater simulation
Above, conservation lab features gurneys ready with “specimens” for experimentation. Two indispensable autopsy tables with drain/pedestals can be seen at left. Photo at right shows a floodwater simulation.

Wet books in water   Book wrapped in wax paper defrosting
Books act like sponges. When set in a tub with several inches of water (above left), they absorbed all the water when left overnight. Note the increased thickness of each volume. The book at right is de-frosting. Waxed or butcher paper is used to wrap books destined for freezing.

Damaged large drawing in polyester support   Close-up of damaged drawing in polyester
This large format architectural drawing was transported with a polyester support, but the ink transferred or lifted from the print to the support.

Removing soaked document from plastic cover   Close-up of soaked document
Barbara Moore demonstrates de-capsulation techniques on a soaked document, that is, removing the soaked sheet from its Mylar protector

Photographic media in tray   Separating wet photographs
Photographic media “specimens” (above left). On the right, Foto-flow developing solution is used to separate wet photographs.

Class inspecting water-damaged documents
Above, class participants examine and document effects of water damage in the first 24 hours.


Some recommended reading:

Barton, John and J. Wellheiser, eds. An Ounce of Prevention: A Handbook on Disaster Contingency Planning for Archives, Libraries, and Record Centres. 2nd ed. Toronto: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2002.

Buchanan, Sally. Disaster Planning: PResparedness and Recovery for Libraries and Archives. Paris: General Information Programme and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1988.

Fischer, David J. and Thomas W. Duncan. “Conservation Research: Flood-Damaged Library Materials.” Bulletin of the AIC 15, no.2 (Summer 1975): 27-48.

Kahn, Miriam. “Mastering Disaster: Emergency Planning for Libraries.”  Library Journal (December 1993):73-75.

Lyall, Jan. “Disaster Planning for Libraries and Archives: Understanding the Essential Issue.” The Electronic Magazine, Vol. 1, No.2 March 1996.

Morris, John. The Library Disaster Preparedness Handbook. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986.

A Primer on Disaster Preparedness, Management and Response: Paper-Based Materials. Selected reprints issued by Smithsonian Institution, National Archives and Records Administration, Library of Congress, and National Parks Service. Washington, D.C.: 1993.

Waters, Peter. Procedures for Salvage of Water-Damaged Library Materials. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1993. http://www.archives.gov/preservation/damaged_library_materials_part1.html

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