Related product Collections Management

Communicating the Value of Preservation – Disaster Response

Jen Hunt Johnson, Special Collections Conservator, University of Notre Dame (former member of the Preservation Committee)

When it comes to disaster response, it’s easy to make excuses to put off planning. 

It’s complicated …
It’s expensive …
A disaster has never, and will never happen here

     … until it does. 

We all talk about the need for disaster planning and preparedness for our collections, but what can these steps really do in the event of a disaster? How can you communicate the value of disaster response to gain support for your efforts?

Some of the basic strategies to mitigate risk in a disaster include:

  • Evaluating the level of risk to your collection 
  • Establishing partnerships with regional service providers
  • Developing a disaster plan
  • Training staff to use it

Focus your communication efforts to emphasize the return on investment each of these steps can bring.

Knowing your level of risk and directing pre-planning efforts accordingly, is one of the best ways to use your resources wisely. If you know you get seepage from leaky windows on the top floor when it rains, do not house your valuable materials there. At the very least, find ways to protect collections that must reside in vulnerable areas. Alert staff to areas prone to problems. A staff member with proper awareness may catch a small problem before it becomes a big one. Periodic training can help staff know what to look for. It is far less costly to create a safe storage environment, than it is to recover following a disaster. 

Establishing partnerships before disaster strikes will save time and ensure services are available when you need them. When a process is intimidating and unknown, you may meet with resistance. To alleviate this issue, meeting ahead of time with vendors allows your institution to take the time needed to make thoughtful choices about when and how a recovery vendor steps in. This can reduce anxiety, and save money in the long run. Consider the following questions:

  • What does the service cost? Can your institution afford it? If a contract with a large recovery firm is out of reach, partnerships might be made with local business that offer space or bulk supplies when needed.
  • Should certain collections be given priority? Identifying what to address first can help to focus the response effort and increase efficiency.
  • What are the limits of the service? What is the vendor’s response time, and what type of service priority will you receive in the event of a regional disaster?
  • What can you do if no one comes? The time to address this question is NOW. You may need to be self-sufficient in the event of a large scale disaster. Think about what you might need to be able to do this.

A recommendation from the 2005 Heritage Health Index Report states, “Every collecting institution must develop an emergency plan to protect its collections and train staff to carry it out.” (Public Trust, 65.) Investing the time to create a clear plan gives staff direction to know what to do when the unexpected strikes. There are many tools available online to help you start writing a plan, but keep it simple. Make updating, and improving your plan part of your annual process. This keeps information in the plan fresh and current, while keeping the task of developing your plan manageable. 

Having a disaster plan is a great step, and one that most staff members would agree is important, but go beyond just reading the plan, and lead training sessions to demonstrate how to use it. Training and practice build confidence, and help to familiarize staff members with available supplies, where to find them, and how best to use them. When your colleagues are engaged in the effort, they can help to build your case that preparedness is both important and achievable.

“Being prepared can reduce fear, anxiety, and losses that accompany disasters.” (Why, 61.) Keep track of how your preparedness efforts create value for your institution. Evaluate your results to determine if preparedness efforts are working, or what you can do to improve. Be sure to include numbers. How many items were recovered? How much would it cost to replace that range of items that you preemptively covered with plastic? Show your colleagues the value of disaster preparedness, and encourage them to take ownership, and be a part of caring for your collections.


A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report. Washington, DC: Heritage Preservation Inc. and The Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2005.
AIC. Heritage Emergency Programs. 2018.
Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation. Resources. 2015.
Heppner, S. Victor Fleischer & Mark J. "Disaster Planning for Libraries and Archives: What You Need to Know and How to Do It." Library Archival Security 22.2 (2009): 125-140.
FEMA. Why Prepare? n.d.

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