A Stitch in Time: Disaster Mitigation Strategies for Cultural Heritage Collections

A Stitch in Time: Disaster Mitigation Strategies for Cultural Heritage Collections

Randy Silverman (University of Utah, USA), Tomomi Nakashima (University of Utah, USA), Jeffrey M. Hunt (University of Utah, USA) and Joyce Tuia (University of Utah, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8624-3.ch010
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A single fire, flood, or earthquake can irrevocably erode or destroy the ability of cultural property to convey meaning. Preventing collection damage of this type is far more cost effective than repairing it. This chapter addresses deliberate, incremental, and affordable approaches to minimizing potential collection risks. Hindsight provides 100% clarity about the difference small actions could have made before a damaging event occurs. True leadership is recognizing hypothetical problems and initiating timely actions that will prevent damage from occurring. The chapter includes nine case studies that provide achievable examples of strategies for mitigating fire, flood, and earthquake risks in libraries and other cultural institutions.
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Modern library conservation had its origins in the aftermath of the November 1966 Florence flood (Royal College of Art, 1968; Waters, 1969; Spande, 2009). Driven by the immediate need for technical information and trained practitioners to salvage cultural property of inestimable value from the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale and dozens of other cultural institutions, responders initiated an unprecedented international conversation focused on recovery that has yet to cease. The dialogue lead to dreams of establishing formal training programs to prepare a generation of conservators for the field of preservation that advanced soon after in the public and private sectors (Waters, 1970). Lessons learned from Florence spurred technical advances including a broad acceptance of non-adhesive bookbindings because the structure survived the flood so well, and a water-wary predilection for disaster planning (Clarkson, 1971; Waters, 1975; Hendriks & Lesser, 1983; Barton & Wellheiser, 1985; Clarkson, 1994; Walsh, 1997; Finley, 1999; Spafford-Ricci & Graham, 2000; Heritage Emergency National Task Force, 2005; Hutchins & Roberts, 2006; Long, 2006; Silverman et al., 2007; Minnesota Historical Society, n. d.).

While the preservation literature reflects the importance of disaster planning, the majority of cultural institutions have demonstrated during the five decades since the flood a lack of incentive and the resources to take on the challenge (Morris, 1986; Fortson, 1992; Dorge & Sharon, 1999; Northeast Document Conservation Center & Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners; Wellheiser & Scott, 2002; Matthews & Feather, 2003; Breighner, Payton, Drewes, & Myers, 2005; Silverman, 2006a, 2006b; Strudwick, 2006; Matthews, Smith, & Knowles, 2009; Carmicheal, 2010). Marie-Thérèse Varlamoff (2006), Director of International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Preservation and Conservation Section (PAC) noted only 22 per cent of 177 libraries assessed in a 2003 international survey had disaster plans in place. The chief impediment most frequently cited to creating a plan was a “lack of models” to emulate (p. 5). Similarly, the 2004 Heritage Health Index found “80% of [U.S.] collecting institutions . . . [lacked] an emergency plan that includes collections,” and tellingly, staff with adequate training to produce them (Heritage Preservation, & Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2005, p. 6).

Clearly, the benefits of disaster planning have not been universally accepted, although the literature suggests:

The most important concept in dealing with disaster, which has emerged clearly from the Florence and Corning floods and the devastating fires at the Temple University Law Library and the Military Records Center in Saint Louis, Missouri is the need for a disaster plan, thought out and drawn up before disaster strikes, and ready to put into action (Swartzburg, 1980, p. 47).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Smoke Detection: Human observation and procedures for deterring potential fire threats are ideally combined with electronic systems to increase the intensity of an institution’s security precautions. Automatic smoke detectors wired to first responders, for example, can be indispensible for providing an early response, especially in geographically isolated institutions, or to provide an alarm when the building is unoccupied.

Building Assessment: Determining how resistant the library, archive, or museum building is to forces.

Automatic Fire Suppression Systems: Automatic fire suppression systems are recommended by insurance companies and required by U.S. building codes for all newly constructed (or renovated) public buildings with dense (or overnight) public occupancy. While automatic fire suppression systems provide undeniable safeguards for human life safety and property protection, they can pose drawbacks for cultural heritage collections.

Dry Pipe: Used in areas where freezing is an issue, but corrosion occurs more actively in dry pipe than in wet pipe systems because dry pipe systems are pressure-tested wet and then drained, leaving a moist, oxygen rich environment to form rust.

Earthquake Resistant Housing: Packaging that renders fragile collections impervious to breakage from falling or vibration.

Flood Flaps: Open face shelving can be protected with a “flood flap” cut from clear polypropylene sheeting which can be tucked between the shelf and its horizontal steel strut to hold it in place.

Wet Pipe: The least expensive to install and are typically very reliable. Corrosion caused by water standing in galvanized steel pipes, however, builds up over time and contributes to collection damage if the system is discharged.

Open Face Shelving: Shelving with floor-mounted posts that has open faces to house materials.

Aspirating Smoke Detection: (ASDs) Extremely sensitive smoke detecting systems that dramatically improve early notification and, therefore, response time.

Water Mist: A recommended type of portable fire extinguishers.

Seismic Shock Cord Restraints: Durable nylon netting that can be attached to the shelving’s steel frame at points.

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