Water Emergency: Tips to Protect and Recover Precious Items

Holly Herro has dealt with a lot of disasters in her career as a conservator—hurricanes, tornadoes and burst pipes, to name a few. She knows that when the precious belongings in a library, museum or home are threatened by water, people need to quickly find out what to do. With that in mind, she and other experts throughout the National Library of Medicine developed a guide for basic recovery that is available online and on mobile devices.

Books Air Drying

Air dry wet books to remove water and prevent structural distortion (Photo by Vu Mai)

The Web site, “Emergency Preparedness and Response: How to Safely Stabilize, Salvage, and Recover Collections in a Water Emergency,” was launched in March 2011. Herro says the resource immediately was offered to the medical library community in Japan which was dealing with the tsunami that occurred days earlier. More recently, Herro offered guidance via e-mail to the library at the New York University Medical Center during flooding from Hurricane Sandy.

The Web site explains what to do, step-by-step, for the variety of items found in a library or museum. For example, there are instructions for the recovery of books and other bound materials; audiovisual recordings; photographs; paintings and more. While the target audience is libraries and cultural institutions, Herro says the information is universal and applies to individuals as well. A video demonstrating the recovery of photographs begins with the instruction, “The first thing you want to do is to identify the family photographs that are most important to you.”

In addition to videos and text, the Web site provides detailed salvage instructions with drawings that can be printed out; a diagram showing the components of a book; and samples of emergency plans to help with disaster preparation. There’s mobile access to the Web site, and an app for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

“Having been a first responder, I know conditions may not allow you to sit at a computer or read through printed materials,” Herro explains. “So I wanted to develop a mechanism for people to access the information in an accurate, abbreviated form. That’s why we came up with the mobile access to the Web site and the app.”

Before becoming a conservation librarian at NLM, Herro worked at the University of South Carolina, where she became particularly familiar with handling the effects of hurricanes, tornadoes and mold outbreaks on valuable research materials. And while she was a conservator at the Virginia Historical Society, she and others mobilized for a 1993 New Year’s Eve disaster when a fire suppression pipe broke and 8,000 gallons of water threatened the collection.

Because of her experience, Herro was chosen to be a member of the American Institute for Conservation Collections Emergency Response Team. This group of specially-trained conservators would be first responders, helping a cultural institution stabilize and recover its collection after an emergency. She’s got a hard hat, badge and credentials that allow her into disaster areas.

The water emergency Web site evolved from the work of two conservators no longer at NLM, Sarah Wagner and Rachel-Ray Cleveland. They began developing collection recovery information after the September 11th attacks. When Herro came to NLM, they asked her to help make their paper documents more accessible. The Web site that developed is a collaborative effort of NLM’s History of Medicine Division, National Network Office and Preservation and Collection Management Section (Library Operations), the Office of High Performance Computing and Communications (Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications) and the Office of Computer and Communications Systems, among others.

Below are tips for disaster preparedness and other suggested resources, courtesy of Herro.

Tips for Disaster Preparedness

  • Make a yearly assessment of your building and collection risks (i.e., look for cracks where water could enter).
  • Be aware of available funding and insurance options.
  • Prepare an emergency plan and update it yearly.
  • Create a response station and stock it with emergency supplies.
  • Provide yearly disaster training for staff including evacuation drill.
  •  Develop a communications plan that includes redundancies in communication and  social media tools.
  •  Write a continuity of operations plan.
  •  Create a collection prioritization plan identifying valuable or essential resources.
  •  Get to know local emergency responders (i.e. invite firefighters to tour the institution).
  •  Develop a relationship with a salvage and recovery company.

Other Disaster Response Resources

By Shana Potash, NLM in Focus editor