The following is a reprint of an article by Library of Congress staff member Jennifer Gavin, which first appeared in The Gazette, an internal publication of the Library of Congress, March 14, 2008.
Library, FLICC Seek Preservation Disaster Network
The Library of Congress and the Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC) co-hosted a symposium Feb. 25 aimed at creating a cooperative disaster-response network to protect and preserve objects of historic or cultural value in the Washington metro area.
Although the Library and other major facilities in the region all have emergency plans for the protection of national treasures and other key items in their collections, the goal of the symposium was to develop a framework for a network of federal libraries that would offer support across their organizations in the event of a disaster in the region. The symposium title was "Safety Net: Networking for Disaster Response."
Another goal of the gathering is to create a charter that will allow participating agencies to share information and offer aid to one another on a voluntary basis.
Following presentations, the 60 participants offered their input in three break-out groups on training for disaster response, identifying tools for response and incorporating the proposed network into existing agency disaster plans. Proposed charter language was presented, and comments on it will be taken in the next several weeks.
Alan Aiches, historic preservation specialist with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, D.C., opened the session with images of the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to set the stage for the day and the necessity of creating an action plan. Aiches updated the audience as to the limits of FEMA assistance to federal agencies.
Blane Dessy, a Department of Justice librarian whose division experienced a flooded building in 2006, described the loss of materials the deluge caused. Flooding triggered by heavy June rains inundated not only the subbasement and basement of the Justice Department’s million-square-foot Robert F. Kennedy Building, he said, but also affected other structures in the area.
Staff were unable to enter the building at all between early Monday, when the flooding occurred, and Wednesday, Dessy said: “The idea that we were going to rush in there and do something heroic was out of the question.”
After two feet of water had been pumped out of the basement, leaving 20 feet of muddy water in the subbasement and numerous books, microforms and articles of furniture in ruins, flood-damaged items were declared fit only for disposal by health officials. Employees were told to limit their exposure during cleanup to 15-minute windows and to mask their noses and mouths.
Staff moved quickly to fill 300 boxes with salvageable materials and move them offsite, but it took more than a year for those materials to be refiled properly after new cabinets replaced the old ones that were compromised by mold, Dessy said.
Equally daunting was the need to move staff to temporary quarters in the library’s unaffected space. Staff had to share not only space but also office phones and computers with other dislodged divisions. In all, 1,200 people had to be reassigned within the building during the six weeks of recovery, Dessy said. Any continuity-of-operations plan (COOP) should consider the "people issues," such as who should go where following a serious space dislocation and who has authority to offer some employees administrative paid leave or authorize them to work from home, he said.
Such plans need to be written to allow for improvisation based on the circumstances presented, he said. Eric Pourchot, professional development director for the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, described that group’s work to train "go" teams around the country to travel to affected sites and help direct disaster conservation of library and museum materials.
Work to form the new network is being supported by the Federal Library and Information Center Committee and the International Federation of Library Associations Preservation and Conservation North American Network.
The Library of Congress Preservation Directorate will also sponsor two meetings later in the year: "Preservation Education in the 21st Century" will be held in May, and a "Summit of Research Scientists in Preservation" will be held in July.