2000: Disasters, Major and Minor

Craig Fees, “Disasters, Near and Far”, Newsletter and Annual Report: From the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre 5 (2000)

 reprinted in the newsletter of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre, with permission, from the Society of Archivist’s Film and Sound Group News 13 (2000), pp. 3-5, where it was entitled “Disasters, Major and Minor”.

 

This article was written for the benefit of fellow archivists and conservators, who from time to time will have their own disasters and near-disasters to manage. It is reprinted here from the Society of Archivists’ Film and Sound Group News for December 2000 with the kind permission of the Editor, Dr. John Alban, County Archivist for Norfolk. It tells part of the story of living for nine months with construction.

What a friendly profession we’re in. Back in September we had a disaster, when the electrician working on the new accommodation block and archive extension made an unauthorised and unaccompanied visit to our accessions/work room. The room was chock a block with recording/playback equipment and archives, both recently-arrived material and processed things made homeless by work going on in the back strong room. The electrician chopped a wide channel through the plaster in one wall in order to lay a new set of cables, sending debris and a thick cloud of plaster dust around the room. I was on leave, but dropped in serendipitously with my children to do a few things; and used a word that I have never used in front of my children before, and hope never will again. Tape recorders, video players, tape duplicator, projectors, audio tapes, video tapes, computer disks, gramophone disks, negatives, positives, paper archives, some boxed, some not – covered in thick dust. Every surface, wherever in the room, however far down the shelves or tucked behind other things, was coated in dust.

What do you do? It turns out that the best thing to do is to do nothing, at least not in haste. Move nothing, touch nothing. Don’t panic, and don’t despair. And don’t let anyone rush in to try to clean up the mess. In a dry disaster, unless damp or wet is an issue, a rush to clean up will almost certainly make matters worse: It will send dust and debris into places which were previously clear; and it will wipe away the evidence on which the disaster recovery plan should be based. Indeed, if you’re not very careful, the fact that there has been a disaster can be obscured until it is too late and you have done irreparable damage to something. So start by keeping everyone out, and then – with one eye on the insurance claim, and one eye firmly on assessing the extent and nature of the disaster – document what has happened. Take photographs and/or make a video, and start an annotated inventory. If you can safely do it, put a number of expendable items carefully into an archival box, as illustrations. And then stand back and think.

We did some of these things, I’m pleased to say; but apart from apologising to my children, probably the wisest thing I did was to describe what had happened and put a plea for advice onto OHF-Online, the Oral History Forum’s email discussion group. David Lee [former Chairman of the Film and Sound Group, and Archivist at the Wessex Film and Sound Archive] forwarded it to another audio-visual group, and we very soon had messages of support, experience and advice from as far away as Alaska and Texas (Bob Curtis-Johnson of the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association and Stuart Rohre, tape archivist for Applied Research Laboratories of the University of Texas at Austin). Conservator Mark Hingley phoned from the Norfolk Record Office, Ken Howarth of Heritage Recording UK emailed, and Nick Berkeley made contact from the National Monuments Record Centre. Richard Hess emailed from Glendale, California, to say “We had a project where we had installed about a million dollars worth of audio-video-projection equipment and the same thing happened”, which was surprisingly cheering, and Rob Perks, oral history curator in the National Sound Archives, shared the Christmas burst pipe in Bradford, which “devastated our offices”, forced them out for three months while everything dried, and taught him “to be patient in dealing with contractors whose sense of urgency differed from mine!” Peter Brothers, President of a New Jersey tape restoration firm called Specs Bros., confirmed that “this sort of thing happens all too often”, and along with other observations pointed out that the obviously affected area should not be the end of our concern: “We have seen situations where plaster dust has been carried in the air-handling system and contaminated rooms hundreds of feet away on different floors from the incident”.

All of which helped to put our ‘disaster’ into perspective, took away the devastated feeling which distracted from the task of recovery, and put the situation firmly back into our own hands. Nick Berkeley emailed to say that “the Midland Group of Conservators has undertaken to offer the services of one or more of its members to anyone requiring help in a disaster involving archives of any description”, and, with the permission of his employer, spent a day sharing his experience and getting his hands dirty with us. It is difficult not to be grateful to belong to a profession which has so much generosity rolling around in it.

What to do? Don’t make the situation worse: Wear a face mask, and latex or vinyl gloves, and begin by getting rid of all surface dust and debris. Hoover everything you can – gently – using a machine with a HEPA filter if possible. Put a net filter over the intake if necessary, and use soft brushes to sweep into the intake. Keep the vacuum cleaner itself away from magnetic materials (the electromagnetic field set up by the motor can affect recordings); if it is possible, put the machine itself and its exhaust outside the workshop, using an extra-long nozzle. Our Dyson DC02 with its HEPA filter, filters changed as necessary, seemed to do a good job. Don’t open a box, sleeve or tape case until it has been thoroughly cleaned – opening it will create a vacuum, and any lingering dust will be sucked in. Gently hoover the exposed surfaces of tapes, and the cases and hubs of exposed audiocassettes (making sure the tape inside is not loose – if the tape knocks around inside the casing its edges can be damaged). Softly brush or use compressed air to blow dust from exposed gramophones and negatives. Don’t be tempted to introduce liquids into the situation: moisture will trigger chemical reactions, and bind the plaster into gluey messes on exposed media. Use a portable dehumidifier in the work area if you can: a dry dust is far less problematic than dust swollen and excited by damp. Once you’ve vacuumed, use a dust bunny or smoke eater on box surfaces to get the last clinging dust off. If more appropriate, seal contaminated materials in plastic bags and take them outside, blowing the dust off with a gentle air-line or compressed air (which can be bought from a good photographic shop; beware the kind of canned air some computer or office supplies shops sell, which are not so much oxygen as other things with long names); just make sure that the dust you remove is trapped or blown away, and not ricocheted back or around to settle onto other material. Examine your media carefully after the grosser clean: Audiocassettes or video cassettes might have to be disassembled to be cleaned further, for example; gramophone disks might need further attention. Use a magnifying glass. Take expert advice, and care.

As for recording and playback machines, don’t be tempted to use them until they have been (as in our case) sent away to be professionally cleaned. Dust can get into lubricating grease, or onto recording and playback heads, and destroy the workings of the machines or media played on them. And remember to clean the heck out of any affected room – don’t bring cleaned materials back in until you are absolutely certain it is safe.

Finally, think back. Any material which was in archival boxes and/or archival sleeves (photographs and negatives, for example) was virtually unaffected, even when the outside of the box or sleeve was totally covered in dust: A few extra ounces of prevention, preparing for the unexpected, is worth hundreds in cure. And how did that workman get in? Then count your blessings: Apart from the anxiety and the labour, virtually no irreparable damage was done. Knowing what to do – and knowing what not to do – is 99% of the cure.