In-House Management of Disasters

Jen Hunt Johnson, Conservator and Preservation Specialist, Illinois State University

From that pesky drip to a burst pipe, to a power outage or contained fire, small disasters can carry all the stress of the big guys. Much like their large-scale counterparts, successful outcomes rely on solid preparation.

Where to start?

Get back to basics with your disaster plan. Review the major steps in your plan to get in the right mindset, and be clear about what you need to do. Still working on your plan? Don't panic, keep handy reference tools like the Emergency Salvage and Response Wheel (now available as a free app!) nearby.  Assess the disaster and make safety your first priority. Clear patrons and staff from dangerous areas such as spilled chemicals, standing water or damaged electrical. Alert facilities staff to resolve any safety concern before proceeding with collection response.

Assess the situation

One of the most challenging aspects of small disasters is trying to determine if the situation can realistically be managed by staff in-house. Think about your past experiences with disaster response. How much material was involved, and how successfully was the response managed? Ask colleagues to share their experiences. Use this information to come up with some general ideas to help guide you to a quick decision. Can your staff manage a range of water damaged books? An aisle? A certain number of volumes? Think about recovery procedures and if you have the facilities to accommodate them. You may have ample table space to air-dry a handful of books, but how about a few hundred?  Having some general answers to these types of questions can help you have a better sense of knowing when to call in a vendor for back-up. Of course, don't forget to write this all down in the disaster plan!

What are some of the resources that you may need? Easy access to supplies and equipment will be critical. Here are a few supplies that are great to keep on hand for when the need arises:

  • Paper towels or pre-cut newsprint can be used to help interleave book pages; blotter sheets can be used to line tables and absorb water from drenched collections.
  • Disposable gloves should be available to protect workers from mold, contaminated water, or minor chemical spills. ALWAYS make sure you have the right gloves for the job. The AIC Health & Safety Committee website has great information on personal protective equipment.
  • Plastic sheeting to shield collections from water, dirt or debris from above.
  • Absorbent socks to isolate spilled materials (contact your Health and Safety personnel for support with chemical spills).
  • A secure workspace isolated from patrons, to layout materials to dry or clean as needed.

Supplies are important, but don't forget to assess your biggest resource, PEOPLE. Your disaster plan should include a list of team members who are properly trained for response, but not every disaster will require the whole team. Adding more people to the mix can be helpful, but can also lead to disorganization if guidelines for response are unclear. Be careful to involve only those people that you really need, and give preference to those who have training or prior experience. If at all possible, involve subject specialists for the affected areas. They can help make triage decisions that may minimize unnecessary repair and recovery.

Keep it organized

During the response effort one of the biggest challenges is to keep things organized. Even with a small disaster treat the steps of your approach the same: 

  • Identify the response team leader. You may be the only responder, but as the team lead, take the time to plan out what you need to do before jumping into the fray. 
  • Maintain good communication with facilities staff who may be called in to respond, but also with your administrative staff who may need to help you purchase supplies, or make notifications about patron and staff access to areas. Let people who can help know what's going on in case you find you have bit off more than you can chew.
  • Move out damaged collections, but protect the adjacent ones.
    • Relocating material is a lot of work! Try to minimize this if possible.
    • Assess what hazards may impact the space (saturated carpet, splashing from drips, accumulating dirt and grime, failed HVAC or humid conditions) and try to work around the area.
      • Hang plastic sheeting to protect adjacent material.
      • Use fans and dehumidifiers to dry out spaces, maintain good ventilation, and reduce your mold risk. 
        • Mold can become active within 48 hours of warm, moist conditions so rapid identification and action is key.
      • Check the space regularly until the problem is clearly managed.
        • Water can seep in from nearby areas, or pool on plastic sheeting and easily go unnoticed.
  • As collections get shifted during a disaster, develop a plan to maintain inventory control and manage items as they may be segregated during recovery efforts.
  • Take photos of the area before removing anything. Images not only help to illustrate the conditions later on, but can help identify and relocate affected materials after the response is complete.
    • Make sure to include written notes – what seems obvious in the immediate moment, is usually the first thing you forget when all the work is complete, for example: "concentrated black mold found in range LB65 – LC82.”
    • Record collection type, range, number of pieces damaged, staff time, supplies needed and expenses.

Follow up and review

Following a disaster, make the most of a bad experience by following up with your documentation. Compile notes and photographs into a report that includes the following:

  • Damage that occurred.
  • The cause. 
  • Your method for managing the disaster.
    • What could be done to increase prevention?
    • Would you do it yourself again, or call in assistance? 
  • Think about how much it actually cost. 
    • Look at the numbers of impacted collections as well as the supplies, and total time required to complete the response.
    • Did you save money or would a vendor have been more cost effective?

Small disasters can have a surprising impact and easily become unwieldy, but with a good response plan in place, being your own first-responder can keep these events in check. Remember, with any response plan, preparedness is peace-of-mind for your collections.  


AIC: American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Emergency Response & Salvage Wheel.

Florian, Mary-Lou E. Fungal Facts: Solving Fungal Problems in Heritage Collections. London: Archetype, 2002. Print.

“Free App for Artifact Recovery." North Carolina Connecting to Collections Blog. North Carolina Connecting to Collections, 7 Dec. 2012.

"Health & Safety." Health and Safety. American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, n.d.

"Looking for Heritage Preservation? Welcome to FAIC." Heritage Preservation. Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, n.d.

Ogden, Sherelyn. Preservation of Library & Archival Materials: A Manual. Andover, MA: Northeast Document Conservation Center, 1999. Print.

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