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Recovering Books and Works of Art on Paper From Fires

Notes from Carteret County Fire Recovery Workshop

Burnsville Museum, June 2, 2014

In this workshop, the Cultural Resources Emergency Support Team created a mock museum, and set it on fire.  Workshop participants were then brought in two days later, and the museum was used as a disaster recovery training opportunity.  Below are notes to bear in mind should you be faced with a fire recovery scenario involving books, works of art on paper, etchings, birth certificates, diplomas, lithographs, or other paper-based manuscripts.

  1. In a disaster situation, you typically only have 15 minutes to go into the building & attempt to retrieve items before the fire crew shuts you out.
    1. It is strongly recommended to create a floor plan and priority list for firefighters, in case the building is deemed unsafe and the firefighters must retrieve artifacts themselves.
      1. Make contact with your local fire department & invite the Fire Chief to take a tour of your facility. During the tour, take time to explain where high priority items are stored, as well as where solvents & any other flammable materials may be stored.
      2. Your institution may wish to consider having a Knox Box installed. This is a metal box attached to the outside of the building, which contains keys to every room in the building.  You can also include a copy of the floor plan and priority list.  Typically, the head of your organization and the Fire Chief are the only two people who have keys to the Knox Box.
  2. Keep inventories up to date and duplicated. Store a copy off-site on a flash drive.
  3. Have a disaster preparedness kit stored nearby, but off site. This kit includes items like tarps (to spread items out on & prioritize), dry cleaning sponges, vinyl gloves, respirators, aprons, pens, etc.
  4. Collections Storage: when storing items, keep in mind that the higher they are on a shelf, the more heat & smoke damage they would be exposed to in the event of a fire.  You may wish to store items on lower shelves, if possible, keeping them at least 6” above ground level in case of a flood.  Weigh the likelihood of fire or flood, and decide accordingly.
  5. In the event you are helping retrieve items after a disaster, you will need to triage items. CREST recommends using an item ID sheet.  On site, you can categorize items, sorted out on separate tarps, for treatment or disposal.  The categories on the sheet include:
    1. Minor – a small amount of unskilled attention can restore the item to usable condition. Examples include rinsing or dry cleaning.
    2. Delayed – perhaps the item is still drying, and it is unclear how much damage there will be. Wait until it is stable, and evaluate.
    3. Conservation –  The item will require the attention of a skilled professional before it can be returned to the collection.
    4. Disposal– the item is damaged beyond repair, or has such little value, it is not worth providing conservation treatment for.
  1. Triaging & categorizing items proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of this workshop. In a disaster scenario, you are pressured to make decisions quickly, sometimes with very little information.  It’s important to discern which items are high-priority, and which hold little value for the institution.  Otherwise, precious time can be wasted evaluating items of little value, or quibbling with others over how to categorize and treat low priority items.
  2. If there are items you are completely uncertain about, create a Black Zone category for items that will need to be reviewed by the institution’s committee before disposal.

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