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 Northeast Document

Conservation Center

100 Brickstone Square

Andover, MA 01810-1494

Tel: (978) 470-1010

Fax: (978) 475-6021  TECHNICAL





Section 3, Leaflet 3 






by Beth Lindblom Patkus

Preservation Consultant

Walpole, MA and

Karen Motylewski

formerly Director of Field Service

Northeast Document Conservation Center



Natural disasters, such as hurricane Andrew's August 1992 assault on southern Florida and Louisiana, make all of us acutely aware of our vulnerabilities to disaster. Fortunately, catastrophes of this magnitude are rare, but disaster can strike in many ways. For example, a broken water main inundated the Chicago Historical Society in 1986; fire severely damaged the Cabildo in New Orleans in 1988; the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged several San Francisco area museums and libraries in 1989; smoke from an electrical fire covered collections throughout the Huntington Gallery in 1985; mold damage threatened Mount Vernon's archival collections. Large or small, natural or man-made, emergencies put an institution's staff and collections in danger.


It is unfortunate that institutional staff often learn about the advantages of emergency preparedness through hard experience, but an emergency does not have to become a full-fledged disaster. In fact, hazards can often be mitigated or avoided altogether by a comprehensive, systematic, emergency-preparedness program. Such programs provide a means for recognizing and preventing risks, and for responding effectively to emergencies.


An increasing number of professionals know that small-scale emergencies can be contained if staff members are prepared to react quickly. Damage can be limited even in the face of a large-scale disaster. For example, cultural institutions in Charleston, South Carolina, formed a consortium that focused on disaster preparedness several years before they were hit by hurricane Hugo in 1989. Many of those institutions sustained only minor damage because they were able to put their early warning procedures into operation.


Disaster planning is complex; the written plan is the result of a wide range of preliminary activities. The entire process is most efficient if it is formally assigned to one person who acts as the disaster planner for the institution and is perhaps assisted by a planning team or committee. The institution's director may play this primary role or may delegate the responsibility, but it is important to remember that the process must be supported at the highest level of the organization if it is to be effective. The planner should establish a timetable for the project and should define the scope and goals of the plan, which will depend largely on the risks faced by the institution.




A prudent first step is to list geographic and climatic hazards and other risks that could jeopardize the building and collections. These might include the institution's susceptibility to hurricanes, tornadoes, flash flooding, earthquakes, or forest fires, and even the possibility of unusual hazards such as volcanic eruptions. Consider man-made disasters such as power outages, sprinkler discharges, fuel or water supply failures, chemical spills, arson, bomb threats, or other such problems. Take note of the environmental risks that surround your institution. Chemical industries, shipping routes for hazardous materials, and adjacent construction projects all expose your institution to damage. While all institutions are not vulnerable to all disasters, any event that is a real possibility should be covered under your emergency plan.


Look carefully at your building and site. Check the surrounding terrain. Is the building located on a slope? Is the basement above flood level? Are there large trees near the building? Are such things as utility poles and flagpoles secure? Is the roof flat? Does water accumulate? Do gutters and drains work properly? Are they cleaned regularly? Are windows and skylights well sealed? Is there a history of leaks or other building and structural problems?


Within the building, fire protection systems, electrical systems, plumbing, and environmental systems are of primary concern. Are there enough fire extinguishers, and are they regularly inspected? Does the building have fire alarms and a fire-suppression system? Are they well maintained? Are they monitored twenty-four hours a day? Are fire exits blocked? How old is the wiring? Is it overloaded? Are electrical appliances unplugged at night? Is auxiliary power available if needed? Are water pipes in good shape? Are there water detectors, and do they work? Are there any problems with the climate-control system? You may have already thought of many other questions, and you should create a risk-assessment checklist of your own.


It is also important to determine the vulnerability of the objects within the collections. What types of materials are included? Are they easily damaged? Are they particularly susceptible to certain types of damage such as moisture, fire, breakage, and the like? How and where are collections stored? Are they protected by boxes or other enclosures? Is shelving anchored to structural elements of the building? Is it stable? Are any artifacts stored directly on the floor where they could be damaged by leaks or flooding? All items should be raised at least four inches from the floor on waterproof shelves or pallets. Are materials stored under or near water sources? Analyze your security and housekeeping procedures. Do they expose collections to the dangers of theft, vandalism, or insect infestation?


Consider administrative vulnerabilities. Are your institution's collections insured? Is there a complete and accurate inventory? Is a duplicate of the inventory located at another site? Have collection priorities been set? In other words, do you know which collections should be salvaged first in the event of fire, water, or other emergency? Do you have a back-up priority list if you cannot reach the highest-priority objects due to building damage or the nature of the disaster?


While these questions may seem overwhelming, by the time you complete your survey, you will have a good idea of the significant risks your institution faces. Although there may be a wide range of disaster scenarios, the most common are water, fire, physical or chemical damage, or some combination of these. The specific procedures of a disaster plan focus on the prevention and mitigation of these types of damage.




Once your institution's hazards are specified, the disaster planner should devise a program with concrete goals, identifiable resources, and a schedule of activities for eliminating as many risks as possible. Geography and climate cannot be changed, but other vulnerabilities can be reduced. If building and collection conditions are regularly monitored, repaired and improved, many emergency situations will be eliminated.


A regular program of building inspection and maintenance should be a very high priority if one is not already in place. It can prevent or reduce common emergencies resulting from burst pipes, defective climate-control equipment, worn electrical wiring, clogged drains, or other problems. If all improvements cannot be undertaken at once, make a schedule and follow it. If some items on your schedule prove impossible or are delayed, move on to the next goal and return to the earlier problem when it becomes more practical.


Once building systems are in proper working order, devise a maintenance schedule. Patchwork repairs and deferred maintenance only result in accelerated deterioration, leading to an increased risk of emergencies. Keep a log of building events like clogged drains, furnace cleaning, and equipment failures. The more you know about your building and its operation, the faster (and more economically) repairs can be made.


While water damage is the most common form of disaster for museums, every institution with collections of enduring value needs a good fire-protection system. Since most emergencies seem to happen outside normal working hours, reliable fire detection systems on professional, twenty-four-hour monitors are a wise investment. Wherever possible, collections should also be protected by a fire-suppression system. The use of halon is no longer recommended. Preservation professionals now recommend wet-pipe sprinklers for most libraries and archives. In addition, water misting suppression systems have become available within the last several years; these can provide fire suppression using much less water than conventional sprinkler systems. Before choosing a fire-protection system, be sure to contact a preservation professional or a fire-protection consultant for information about the latest developments in fire protection and for advice appropriate to your collections and situation.


All fire-protection systems should be designed and installed by professionals with experience in servicing museums, archives, and libraries, because the needs of these institutions differ from the needs for home protection. Talk to colleagues at other local institutions or a preservation professional in your region for recommendations, and always check references.


Other actions that reduce building and collection vulnerability include maintaining a collection inventory, improving collection storage, and following good security and housekeeping procedures. An inventory will provide a basic list of holdings to assist in assigning priorities for salvage, and will be essential for insurance purposes. Improved collection storage, such as boxing and raising materials above the floor level, will reduce or eliminate damage when emergencies occur. Comprehensive security and housekeeping procedures will ward off emergencies such as theft, vandalism, and insect infestation. They will also ensure that fire exits are kept clear and fire hazards eliminated.




Disaster planning should not take place in a vacuum. To work effectively, it must be integrated into the routine operating procedures of the institution. In fact, you will probably find that in planning for disasters you will also be working toward the accomplishment of other goals. For example, a properly functioning climate-control system will prevent fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity, resulting in a better preservation environment and a longer life for all collections. At the same time, this prevents disasters such as water leaks from air-handling units. Similarly, if an institution surveys its collections and creates an inventory for disaster planning, a corollary benefit is better access to the collections for researchers and staff.


Remember three important characteristics of an effective disaster plan: comprehensiveness, simplicity, and flexibility. The plan needs to address all types of emergencies and disasters that your institution is likely to face. It should include plans for both immediate response and long-term salvage and recovery efforts. The plan should also acknowledge that normal services may be disrupted. How will you proceed if there is no electrical power, no water, and no telephone?


The plan must be easy to follow. People faced with a disaster often have trouble thinking clearly, so concise instructions and training are critical to the success of the plan. The key is to write in a clear, simple style without sacrificing comprehensiveness. Above all, remember that you cannot anticipate every detail, so be sure that while your plan provides basic instructions, it also allows for some on-the-spot creativity.


Decide who will be responsible for various activities when responding to an emergency. Who will be the senior decision-maker? Who will interact with fire officials, police, or civil defence authorities? Who will talk to the press? Who will serve as back-up if any of your team members are unable to get to the site? Identify a location for a central command post (if necessary), and space for drying collections. Set up a system for relaying information to members of the salvage team. Because written information is less susceptible to misunderstanding, your communications strategy might include notes to be delivered by "runners." Good communication is essential to avoid confusion and duplication of effort in an emergency.


Finally, if the planning process seems overwhelming, approach it in stages. Decide what type of disaster is most likely to occur in your institution, and begin to plan for it. The plan can always be expanded to include other scenarios.




Some important steps should be taken before you write your plan. First, identify sources of assistance in a disaster. Determine the supplies you will need for disaster response and salvage efforts for your specific collections. Basic supplies like polyethylene dropcloths, sponges, flashlights, and rubber gloves should be purchased and kept on hand. They should be kept in a clearly marked location, inventoried periodically, and, if necessary, replaced. If you choose to lock the cabinet containing the supplies, make sure the keys will be available in an emergency. A sample list of basic supplies is included with this article. Keep a list of additional supplies that might be needed. This list should include suppliers' names, addresses, and phone numbers, and should provide backup sources for supplies. Arrangements should also be made for emergency cash or credit, because it is sometimes difficult to get money quickly in a disaster situation.


In recent years, many disaster-planning guides have published lists of supplies and companies that provide disaster services as well as sources of technical assistance. Research these services thoroughly--it is an essential part of the planning process. If possible, invite local service providers to visit your institution to become familiar with your site plan and collections in advance of an emergency. It is also a good idea to plan for back-up companies to provide critical supplies and services in case there is a community-wide or regional disaster. Consider coordinating with other local institutions.


The disaster planner should identify all appropriate disaster-response and recovery services. These can range from police, fire, and ambulance services to maintenance workers, insurance adjustors, and utility companies. Several national companies provide disaster-recovery services such as dehumidification and vacuum freeze drying. Liaisons should be maintained with local emergency services so that they can respond appropriately in case of disaster. For example, you may want to provide the fire department with a list of high-priority areas to be protected from water if fire-fighting efforts permit. You may be able to arrange with the fire department to allow specific staff members from your institution to enter the building for evaluation or salvage if safety allows. It may be possible to rope off areas for arson investigation while allowing accessibility to other areas. All such arrangements must be prepared for in advance for efficient response.


Other valuable sources of assistance are local, state, or federal government agencies. While it is widely known that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides disaster assistance programs, institutions may not be aware that this can include support for recovery of art objects and cultural resources. An October 1991 policy change allows federal assistance to pay for conservation of objects that are damaged in a disaster. Conservation is defined by FEMA as "the minimum steps which are both necessary and feasible to place the items back on display without restoring them to their pre-disaster condition." FEMA does not cover the replacement of destroyed items.




The first priority in any disaster is human safety. Saving collections is never worth endangering the lives of staff or patrons. In a major event, the fire department, civil defense authorities, or other professionals may restrict access to the building until it can be fully evaluated. Once safety concerns are met, the next consideration will be records and equipment crucial to the operation of the institution, such as registrar's records, inventories, and administrative files. Collections salvage and building rehabilitation will be the next priority.


Objects or collections of great importance to the institution must be identified ahead of time. If this is not done, valuable time may be wasted salvaging materials of little value or spent arguing about what should be saved first. Ideally, this step includes a floor plan that clearly states the priority of collections for salvage. This should be attached to the disaster plan, but the security of this type of information should be considered. It may be wise to allow only upper-level staff access to this part of the plan prior to an actual emergency.


Salvage priorities should be based not only on the value of objects, but on their vulnerability to the particular damage caused by the emergency. If you are not knowledgeable about the hazards for various materials, contact a conservator to help you incorporate these considerations into your salvage plan. Paper and textiles, for instance, are susceptible to mold when they are warm and damp. Many metals will corrode rapidly under the same conditions. Salt water may accelerate this damage. Ivory, small wooden objects, and lacquer may swell and crack with rapid changes in moisture and temperature. Veneers and furniture may be constructed with water-soluble adhesives. Objects may become brittle after exposure to the temperatures of a fire. All categories of collections have special handling and salvage procedures developed by experienced professionals. Because the instructions for salvage of the wide variety of objects found in collections is beyond the scope of this article, a brief reading list has been included for further information.




Once the necessary preliminary steps have been taken, writing the plan should be relatively straightforward. Although each plan will be different, a sample outline is given below:


Introduction--stating the lines of authority and the possible events covered by the plan.



Actions to be taken if advance warning is available.



First response procedures, including who should be contacted first in each type of emergency, what immediate steps should be taken, and how staff or teams will be notified.



Emergency procedures with sections devoted to each emergency event covered by the plan. This will include what is to be done during the event, and the appropriate salvage procedures to be followed once the first excitement is over. Include floor plans.



Rehabilitation plans for getting the institution back to normal.



Appendices, which may include evacuation/floor plans; listing of emergency services; listing of emergency response team members and responsibilities; telephone tree; location of keys; fire/intrusion alarm procedures; listing of collection priorities; arrangements for relocation of the collections; listing of in-house supplies; listing of outside suppliers and services; insurance information; listing of volunteers; prevention checklist; record-keeping forms for objects moved in salvage efforts; detailed salvage procedures.



No matter how much effort you have put into creating the perfect disaster plan, it will be largely ineffective if your staff is not aware of it, if it is outdated, or if you cannot find it during a disaster. A concentrated effort must be made to educate and train staff in emergency procedures. Each staff member should be made aware of his or her responsibilities, and regular drills should be conducted if possible. Keep several copies of the plan in various locations, including off-site (ideally in waterproof containers). Each copy of the plan should indicate where other copies may be found.


Most important, the disaster plan must be updated periodically. Names, addresses, phone numbers, and personnel change constantly. New collections are acquired, building changes are made, and new equipment is installed. If a plan is not kept completely up to date, it may not be able to assist you effectively in dealing with disasters.


Disaster planning is essential for any institution to provide the best possible protection for its collections. Disaster can strike at any time--on a small or a large scale--but if an institution is prepared, the damage may be decreased or avoided. A disaster plan must be considered a living document. Its risk-assessment checklist must be periodically reviewed, its lists must be updated, and its collection priorities revised as needed. An effective disaster plan will do its best to insure that historical collections in our cultural institutions are safeguarded for the future.




The following sources provide further basic reading on disaster planning for libraries and archives. Please consult NEDCC's leaflet "Emergency Management Bibliography" for additional references.


Artim, Nick. "An Introduction to Automatic Fire Sprinklers." WAAC Newsletter 15.3 (September 1994): 20-27, and 17.2 (May1995): 23-28. Available at

Describes the various types of sprinkler systems and their advantages and disadvantages in a clear, readable style.


Artim, Nick. "An Update on Micromist Fire Extinguishment Systems." WAAC Newsletter 17.3 (September 1995): 14. Available at

Provides information on development and testing of water misting fire-suppression systems.


Artim, Nick. "Cultural Heritage Fire Suppression Systems: Alternatives to Halon 1301." WAAC Newsletter 15.2 (May 1993): 34-36. Available at

Useful for institutions deciding whether to retain or replace a Halon fire-suppression system.


Canadian Conservation Institute. "Emergency Preparedness for Cultural Institutions." CCI Note 14/1, and "Emergency Preparedness for Cultural Institutions: Identifying and Reducing Hazards." CCI Note 14/2. (Ottawa: CCI, 1995).

A good starting point; has an excellent checklist for reducing hazards.


Fortson, Judith. Disaster Planning and Recovery: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians and Archivists. (New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1992).

Excellent, comprehensive guidance for emergency preparedness: risk prevention, response, and recovery. Includes resource lists, bibliography, decision tree. If you can buy only one emergency planning guide, this should be it.


Fox, Lisa L. "Management Strategies for Disaster Preparedness." The ALA Yearbook of Library and Information Services 14 (1989): 1-6.

An excellent summary of management and implementation strategies for putting theory into practice.


Lyall, Jan. "Disaster Planning For Libraries and Archives: Understanding the Essential Issue." Provenance: The Electronic Magazine 1.2 (March 1996). Available at


O'Connell, Mildred. "Disaster Planning: Writing and Implementing Plans for Collections-Holding Institutions." Technology and Conservation (Summer 1983): 18-24.

A succinct and practical approach to disaster planning. Every planning committee should read it before undertaking the task.


Walsh, Betty. "Salvage Operations for Water Damaged Archival Collections: A Second Glance" and "Salvage at a Glance." WAAC Newsletter 19.2 (May 1997). Available at

Excellent recovery guidelines for minor, moderate, and major disasters.






Metal cart

Plastic (milk) crates


50-ft. extension cord (grounded)

Portable electric fan

Wet vacuum

Blank newsprint

Freezer or wax paper

Plastic trash bags

Plastic buckets and trash can

Paper towels



Monofilament nylon (fishing) line


Gloves (rubber/leather)

Rubber boots and aprons

Safety glasses

Plastic sheeting (stored with scissors and tape)

First aid kit

Clipboards, paper, pens, markers

Emergency funds (cash and purchase orders)






Reprinted with permission from Disaster Planning for Cultural Institutions, by Beth Lindblom and Karen Motylewski, published originally as Technical Leaflet #183 by the American Association for State and Local History, Nashville, TN, 1993. All rights reserved.







Copyright 1999, Northeast Document Conservation Center. All rights reserved.







Estudio de Museología Rosario... ...un sitio especializado en museología....visítenos...