May Day

May Day 2015 Saving Our History logoThis is the first year I’ve done any SAA May Day1 activities, but this year an e-mail went around work about a webinar, “After Disasters: Salvage and Recovery in Small to Mid-Sized Museums and Libraries.” It’s available (free) at the Connecting to Collections Care website.

One thing that struck me was the number of times phrases like “[$subject] is its own webinar” popped up, though in retrospect that should absolutely not be surprising. “Disasters” can take many forms, and the contents of museums and libraries vary wildly. The webinar concentrated on fires and floods, both because they’re common and because they may occur as secondary disasters (e.g. an arson component to civil unrest).

I found the overview style useful. It stressed the importance of advance planning and forming relationships. One anecdote recalled how a local fire department, having been advised in advance of a repository’s more valuable items, carried furniture out of the building and left it neatly arranged outside for the staff. Everyone in the room liked the suggestion of placing reflectors on shelves with particularly valuable materials. Another point of emphasis was managing human resources—not just assigning roles and preparing to enlist the assistance of contractors, but the importance of self-care and the impact upon staff morale over the long term. Evacuating collections in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is a sprint, but disaster recovery is a marathon.

Other oft repeated words included “ask a conservator,” but the webinar did include run-downs of some conservation considerations. (Is the painting on canvas or wood? Have you checked the ingredient list of the kitty litter you’re planning to use for drying and odor control? Is the glue binding the book strong enough to support it being hung up to dry, or are you better off standing it upright with the pages fanned open or leaving it closed with frequently-changed interleaving?) I am used to having a conservator right across the street, which is very nice. (So is the fact that my conservation issues tend to be things like decades-old Scotch tape or torn paper rather than how to triage collection materials.) I think “ask a conservator” is excellent advice, but I’m always glad of the 101 level discussion. It helps focus the questions you need to ask.

Some of the other general advice fell into the category of common sense, but was still good to hear. I’d like to think that I would be mindful of supplies (masks, gloves, batteries, and non-battery dependent technologies, like pencil and paper, were mentioned as must-haves) and cross-contamination. But bullet points help. Walking paths are an obviously great idea, and the fact that they were mentioned explicitly now makes me more likely to think of them when they’re relevant, rather than in a post-mortem of a disaster situation. I’m unlikely to ever be in charge of a disaster response, but if I’m onsite I hope I can be a more useful soldier.

  1. There are enough iterations of “May Day” that the extra specificity helps.