Collection Evaluation for Disaster Planning

by Sharon Partridge for the Colorado Preservation Alliance

After the risk evaluators, insurance agents and fire department have offered their expertise on possible problems in your site and building, it’s time to use your own expertise to assess your collection in preparation for disaster.

Does your collection include archival, local history or rare materials? If so, are they given special protection? It has been found that boxing rare materials, in addition to environmental and handling protection, offers disaster protection. [See ARL’s “Preparing for Emergencies and Disasters.” SPEC Kit #69, 1980.) Boxing is the single most cost-effective, broadly-valuable treatment for rare items. Refrigerators, even broken ones, can provide inexpensive protection from many potential problems as well as reducing environmental variation. Even placement at table height may provide some protection if you remember the items on top shelves are most exposed to heat while the bottom shelves are exposed to water.

Microfilming or photocopying may be a surprisingly affordable insurance policy” for irreplaceable materials no longer under copyright. An archival-quality, ANSI-standard microfilm of a 300-page book averages $60 while photocopying a 300-page book on permanent/durable paper with¬†binding would be about $45. (Prices as of May 1991.) This may be the perfect chance to go through the local history materials to evaluate and organize them. Making multiple copies costs even less since much of the cost is the labor of turning pages. Making some extra copies will also make this material more accessible to your own patrons. If this is a local treasure, perhaps a community-minded club or business will underwrite the cost. Give a set of the microform or photocopy volume to a large library with the proviso that they will keep it and allow you to¬†make copies if something happens to the original. The object is replacement so maintain this “insurance” out of the immediate area.

Two other categories of materials to consider are photographs and coated stock. Photographs offer a minimal opportunity for do-it-yourself restoration. Their “wet-life” is even less than the 48-hour standard for wet books. Either give them special protection such as refrigerator housing, top priority with the fire department, or give them up and focus your efforts where they will be more productive. Coated stock is the shiny paper usually found in “coffee table” or art books and many magazines. Their high replacement costs, special restoration problems and the fact the majority fall within certain call numbers make these a potential high priority for preventive efforts. Heavy-weight plastic sheeting (9’xl2′) is available from hardware stores for about $8 each. Purchase enough to cover the outside of all shelving containing your highest-priority items. Tape one end securely to the top of the stacks and then accordion pleat the plastic on top of your shelves so it can be quickly pulled down without being noticeable to the patron. Make sure the fire department knows where these are. The sheets will provide some water protection in a fire, may prove invaluable in a leak, and will be needed to cover tables during disaster recovery.

The last major category to consider is the one your patrons would have the hardest time doing without for a protracted time. (This may be the area with the highest circulation). Areas to consider include back issues of periodicals or your reference collection.

A clear plan on file with the fire department will help them expend their energy trying to save the materials that you have selected. They may have valuable suggestions on placement of those materials. While protecting their lives comes first, heroic efforts by firemen have substantially reduced the losses to many libraries. Make it clear before any disaster why you need access to your collection as soon as safety will allow.

Whether an item is unique and therefore irreplaceable or readily available but unaffordable, the results are the same. Small libraries have less to lose, but meager assets with which to recover. If you do have insurance, be clear about the information required and procedures to collect. If your shelf list is destroyed, how do you prove your claim? For a small collection, an off-site shelf list may be a realistic and realizable solution. Store your disaster supplies in the same area.