Libraries, Museums and Disaster Prevention – Keeping things from getting Sandy

By Julie Somers

Often when searching through catalogs on medieval manuscripts I come across descriptions that simply state; ‘fire damage, water damage or mold damage’.  I am immediately curious as to how this damage occurred? Was it recent or did it happen centuries ago? Was the cause natural or man-made? How was it saved from being completely destroyed? I am always amazed at how durable medieval manuscripts really are.

Dresden Manuscripts

Dresden Manuscripts – ub.uni-leipzig.de

In 1846, the private collection of John Boykett Jarman was damaged due to heavy rains in London. Some books remained underwater for three days.  The German city of Dresden was bombed in 1945 which caused severe flooding. The only nearly complete copy of Les Esches d’Amour from the 14th  century was almost destroyed, the ink washed away.  In 1966 the Arno river flood damaged hundreds of manuscripts housed in the National Library in Florence.  This disaster prompted widespread conservation and preservation standards.

Last month the east coast of the United States was hit with a natural disaster named “Superstorm Sandy”. Did this storm cause any water damage to the medieval manuscripts housed in American museums and libraries along the Eastern seaboard?

In fact, many were forced to close their doors for several days because of power outages. The Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York did not reopen until Tuesday, Nov. 6th.  An annual benefit gala at the New York Public Library was cancelled, the food donated to a local hurricane shelter. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook hosted by Fordham University in New York was down due to power outages.

The Cloisters and Gardens Museum in New York

In an nice email response from Abigail Quandt, Head of Book and Paper Conservation at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, she writes “The Walters has a disaster plan in place for the entire museum that allows us to take reasonable and responsible steps in advance to prepare for and mitigate hazards from many types of events. Fortunately the room where our manuscripts and rare books are stored is an interior space, with no windows or exterior walls, so it is very protected.  As a result we did not have any damage to those collections.”

From a simple color coded approach, such as “save all the red tagged manuscripts first!” to the development of a priority list for recovery, libraries and museums have in place a disaster preparedness plan. IFLA has a manual covering standards that cultural heritage institutions should follow, and the ALA recommends an Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel.

Whether natural or man made, disasters of all types can befall the medieval manuscript. The Museum of Modern Art in New York held an event after storm Sandy, where conservation experts were available answer questions regarding damage to collections. Various procedures are used when dealing with water damaged books, one being the freezer method.  According to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), objects should be frozen as soon as possible after becoming wet.  However no technique is guaranteed, the best hope for recovery is to have an emergency response plan in place. Without preparation, there could be far greater loss of library collections.

Happily, due to preparedness and disaster planning no significant damage was done to any medieval manuscripts held by museums or libraries in the path of Superstorm Sandy.

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