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Preparing for the Worst

By Katie Kadue | HUMANITIES, September/October 2006 | Volume 27, Number 5

"The past is never dead," William Faulkner wrote of the South. "It's not even past." When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the loss of family heirlooms and historical artifacts was more difficult for some than the destruction of real estate and personal property. During and after the storm, irreplaceable documents, photographs, artwork, textiles, and digital media were lost to water, wind, mud, and mold.

According to Jane Long, it doesn't always have to be that way. Heritage Preservation, of which Long is one of the directors, has published the Field Guide to Emergency Response, a step-by-step manual on what Long calls "first aid" for preserving historical collections. The guide will enable museums, archives, and libraries to more quickly and effectively respond to natural and manmade catastrophes, with detailed instruction on proper disaster preparation and recovery methods. While events on the scale of Katrina may be rare, disasters like flash floods and fires occur frequently and endanger the essential records and artifacts that preserve the past.

The field guide, with a coordinated DVD to demonstrate salvage techniques, expands on the existing Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel, which was published in 1997 with NEH support. The wheel has been translated into six languages, and is used in more than forty countries around the world. The guide is still portable enough for on-site use, and its interactive features, like pages reserved for supply shopping lists, local emergency numbers, and insurance information, encourage institutions to be prepared. A vital preparation tool is the "What Do I Save First?" section, which requires a list of those objects that are most valuable, most central to the institution's mission, and hardest to replace. Long emphasizes the value of such prioritizing for post-disaster recovery, pointing to organizations such as the Historic New Orleans Collection as success stories. Even though no one could have been completely prepared for Katrina's devastation, Long says, those that had a good sense of their priorities moved their most valuable artifacts to higher ground ahead of time and were able to quickly rescue other important items.

A national survey found, however, that most small institutions do not have emergency plans, and many are understaffed or do not have staff with adequate training. Even those that are well-equipped to handle threats to their materials benefit from an accessible, specialized manual. "It's such a shock to the people who care for the collections to see them in this state, that even they need a little guidance too," Long explains. And for the untrained, some preservation techniques can be counterintuitive-freezing water-damaged paper, for example.

Though geared towards institutions, the field guide and DVD can be valuable resources for anyone seeking to preserve family treasures. Long hopes that in the wake of Katrina both institutions and the public will better appreciate the importance of preservation. Artifacts, documents, and other cultural materials, she says, "really tell the story of our past: from the highest level, in terms of our national history, down to the history of our own families." While digital archives can be useful, she stresses the value of the physical materials' presence, especially with three-dimensional objects, which would be difficult to capture in photographs. "There's the immediacy. If you hold the artifact in your hand, or you're close to it and see it, it really puts you in touch, so to speak, with the past."

Complimentary copies of the field guide were distributed last month—in time for hurricane season—to state emergency management agencies and regional and local institutions in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Florida. Meanwhile, some are continuing post-Katrina preservation efforts. Though the salvage wheel recommends action within forty-eight hours (the average time it takes for mold to start growing), Long notes that the massive damage and lack of access after Katrina meant that that was not always possible. Some materials that had mold growth or had sustained serious water damage were still salvageable after weeks. NEH has recently designated $750,000 for grants to stabilize humanities collections at affected institutions, bringing the Endowment's total commitment to hurricane relief to $2 million. "You do have to work with all deliberate speed to try to rescue your collections," Lon says, "but you shouldn't lose hope."

About the Author

Katie Kadue, a junior at Yale University, was an intern at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Funding Information

Heritage Preservation received $210,180 from NEH to produce and distribute the