Saving history from a hurricane
Teams of archivists are rushing to the Gulf Coast on an urgent mission to recover priceless records damaged by Katrina.
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In New Orleans, the main public library stayed dry. But six of the 12 branch libraries were "pretty much devastated by flooding or rain damage," says Wayne Everard, archivist for the library. Although water flooded the basements of two libraries at Tulane University, he says, "They think they'll get a lot of important stuff recovered."Skip to next paragraph
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Already the American Association for State and Local History has raised funds to send RVs to affected areas. On those RVs are conservators from the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works in Washington, D.C.
Last week the first team of these volunteers arrived in New Orleans. Dressed in hard hats, hip boots, masks, and Tyvek suits, they visited libraries, historical societies, and other cultural agencies.
"We're doing assessments," says Conover Hunt, a collection specialist in Hampton, Va. "That's the first thing to do in deciding how to fix what got hurt."
In another volunteer effort last week, Richard Pearce-Moses, president of the Society of American Archivists, was part of a team of archivists visiting three sites in Mississippi - Gulfport, Biloxi, and Waveland. They surveyed damage in city halls, a public library, a historical society, and other archival collections.
"Records collections were either completely destroyed by the storm surge or were in poor condition because of high humidity that causes mold growth," Mr. Pearce-Moses says. The challenge now is finding space to move records from damp buildings to dry locations.
At the Biloxi Public Library, the building is structurally sound, but the interior is filled with mud and mold. Locked inside is a collection of valuable historical photographs. "If we don't get in there and have them frozen and then restored, we may lose the most significant collection of Biloxi history," says Pearce-Moses.
The Society of American Archivists has a list of 200 archivists willing to donate time to help. But a lack of lodging, water, and food in affected areas prevents large numbers of volunteers from traveling to the area. Staff members from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History are commuting three hours a day each way to try to salvage collections.
Public records are not the only documents needing help. "As people begin to get back into their homes, they'll be looking at their family Bible, family photographs, and wondering how they can salvage them," Pearce-Moses says. "We need some sort of hotline for the public."
In another sign of the collective effort involved, the National Archives is working to find freezer space to store books and documents until they can be treated, Ms. Bennett says.
They are racing the clock. "The huge fear is that it may be too late," says Mr. Messier. "We almost couldn't have a worse combination of elements - the initial wetting of the material, then prolonged exposure to high-level humidity. We're looking to do our absolute best with what we are presented with."
At the New Orleans courthouse, Bruno still does not know where the displaced records will go permanently. But of one thing he is certain: "They'll never be stored below ground again."
As archivists scramble to save important collections, they hope for greater public recognition and support.
"People have simply forgotten about the archival collections, where most of their history resides," says Faye Phillips, associate dean of libraries for special collections at Louisiana State University. "We really need to get that on the radar for future disaster plans. You can buy new library books if you can come up with the money, but you can't buy new archives."