Related product Collections Management

Disaster Response – Interview with Tonia Grafakos

An Interview with Tonia Grafakos the Marie A. Quinlan Director of Preservation at Northwestern University Libraries

Ann Lindsey, Head of Conservation, The University of Chicago Library

For 2019-2020, the CARLI Preservation Committee is sharing a series of interviews with preservation managers, conservators, and other library specialists who graciously described their experiences on preservation and conservation topics of interest to CARLI libraries. This month, Ann Lindsey, Head of Conservation at the University of Chicago Library, asked Tonia Grafakos, Marie A. Quinlan Director of Preservation at Northwestern University Libraries, to share her knowledge and expertise about responding to a disaster situation in the collection.

Interview with Tonia Grafakos on Disaster Response:

First, let me thank you for sharing your expertise on the subject of disaster response. Tell us a little about the Preservation role you play at Northwestern University?

I am the Marie A. Quinlan Director of Preservation at Northwestern University Libraries. The Preservation Department is responsible for the preservation of library collections in all formats. The department spearheads many preservation activities such as environmental monitoring, pest monitoring, disaster planning and response, mass deacidification, and collection assessments. Preservation staff also manage commercial binding and participate in digital reformatting. In addition to library-wide preservation activities, staff in the conservation lab treat and create housings for both special and circulating collections and are involved in the libraries’ exhibition and loan program.

Can you give us a quick summary of the situation you recently faced?

Recently our staff discovered mold in our special collections storage area. As you can imagine, this caused a great deal of concern. The preservation department staff worked very closely with facilities to identify the root cause of the problem, and we began working with library and university personnel to implement a remediation plan.

What were the goals?

There were three main goals of this project: identify the source of the mold outbreak, ensure that staff were safe during remediation, and ensure that the space and all of the affected materials were properly remediated for future use.

Do you feel like you met your goals?

We located the cause of the outbreak and had it addressed by university facilities. Staff working on this project received information on mold and were trained on the use of personal protective equipment. The storage area and the materials it contained were reviewed and remediated. We have added more environmental monitors to this storage area to better track any changes and further reduce the risk of a future mold outbreaks.

How much staff time did your remediation project require?

The staff time allocated for this project has not been fully tallied. Regarding this particular project, the operative word was teamwork. The size of the outbreak meant that resources outside of the preservation department needed to be mobilized. Staff in many areas received training in order to work in the space and serve as a resource for the vendor during remediation.

What level of expertise do you feel your project required?

With this type of disaster, it is important to acknowledge your response limitations. When the mold was initially discovered, we believed that it was a localized problem relegated to a handful of books. It was only after we started to investigate further that we were able to determine the scope of the outbreak. Northwestern has the in-house staff expertise and equipment necessary to treat a small number of books onsite. We quickly realized that this particular outbreak was beyond our capabilities. Once that determination was made, library staff were quickly informed and additional resources were harnessed.

It is important to acknowledge the health and human safety implications of a mold outbreak. Staff need to receive training and personal protective equipment when handling moldy items or entering areas that contain mold. There are many resources that are available to help with mold outbreaks, and those should be utilized.

Were there any surprises? if so, how did you deal with them?

I can’t characterize any particular incident as a surprise. In these situations, you learn to expect the unexpected. At multiple stages, there were a number of unknowns, and our current staff had never worked with a vendor to tackle a project of this size or magnitude. Working with uncertainty can cause a great deal of stress for everyone. I would encourage those in the field to reach out to their colleagues for advice. Mold happens. Many libraries have dealt with this issue either very publicly or privately. The advice of other librarians was invaluable as I went through this project. Do not hesitate to ask for help both within your institution and from those in the library field.

What would you do differently if you could?

We did not take into account the need for shelf-reading post cleaning. No matter how closely a vendor is supervised or how much training is given, books will be mis-shelved. Depending on the last time your collection was shelf-read, the disorganization after remediation will vary. We underestimated how long it would take and how much would be needed.

What would you suggest libraries do to be prepared for an emergency?

The best response for a library is to create a disaster response plan. The document should be reviewed regularly, and staff need to be familiar with its contents. Having a plan that no one can locate or contains out-of-date information is unhelpful in an emergency.

Do you have any recommendations or suggestions on how others might learn more or keep up-to-date on disaster response and remediation?

There are many types of disasters that can happen to a cultural institution. We all know colleagues who have experienced flooding, fires, earthquakes, mold outbreaks, etc. Proper planning can help alleviate what will be an unexpected and very stressful situation. Identifying resources and a response plan prior to a disaster will aid any institution.

Disaster Response Resources

Northeast Document Conservation Center. Session 8: Emergency Preparedness.

Council of State Archives. Pocket Response Plan.

National Park Service. A Primer on Disaster Preparedness, Management and Response.

American Institute for Conservation. Working with Emergency Responders (Poster).

National Park Service. Conserv-O-Gram Series, Chapter 21: Disaster Response and Recovery.

National Park Service, Museum Handbook, "Chapter 10: Emergency Planning".


Return to Preservation Interviews: Learning from our Collective Experiences, the homepage of the Preservation Committee's 2019-2020 Annual Project.