Severe weather across Central Georgia has caused quite a scare in 2017. As I literally write this during a tornado watch, I’m also reminded of the 55 storms we’ve had across Georgia this year – making us more dangerous than even Oklahoma. You may be asking what this has has to do with archives. Well, as we head out of April and in to May, archives across the nation celebrate May Day on May 1st, a day dedicated to the protection of archival collections.
The May Day website cites the Heritage Health Index, a report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services that addresses the “conditions and preservation needs of our nation’s collections” (HHI), which states that even after disasters as destructive as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, very few institutions had actual disaster plans that were up to date (MayDay). Every year on May 1st, archivists and cultural heritage professionals attempt to change that.
Georgia College Special Collections will be celebrating May Day by conducting a walk-through of our own collections keeping an eye out for unboxed material and boxes and other materials that are stored on the floor. We’ll be spending the day creating a plan for boxing materials that are currently loose, and moving items stored on the floor up on to shelves in our stacks. Fixing these problems will help our archive be more prepared for natural disasters and man-made disasters that could befall Georgia College. By making sure everything has a home on a shelf, we can lessen the possibility of water damage, smoke damage, or fire damage affecting our collections.
While we care for our own collections, what about your own at home? As we at the archives check our level of disaster preparedness, it might be time to play along at home to check your own precious family photos and documents and to create an emergency plan for your own items. The Georgia State Archives in Morrow, Georgia has created a checklist of items that are essential disaster records, or those records that should be kept with you in the event of an emergency, as well as how to back up these items. Other sources like the Northeast Document Preservation Center cover photo preservation and emergency salvaging of documents like wet photographs. In this post, we’ll cover the basics so that you too can have an emergency preparedness plan for your documents and photographs.
We will begin with important documents that are irreplaceable and would cause sufficient problems if they were to be destroyed and not recovered. These documents include driver’s licenses, contracts that involve payment to you, bank records, adoption records, insurance records, medical records, birth certificates, social security cards, photo IDs, and other high risk records. And don’t forget about your pets’ records as well! A full list of these items can be found on the Georgia Archives website. While these items are technically replaceable, tracking down a replacement generally requires use of one of the other items included on the list.
The Georgia State Archives recommends using a combination of placing duplicates of these items elsewhere in the house, uploading copies of the items to a digital storage device such as an external hard drive or flash drive, and sending duplicates to family or friends who live at least 100 miles away from you. While many of these items will be duplicated in a government agency building, these institutions are not immune from the very same disaster that may befall your own home. By using a combination of these methods, you avoid the major disadvantages of each method, while also having multiple secure backups. If you already have these backups, May Day is a great day to review your current records to ensure that they are fully up to date. Some documents expire, change, or should be added to your records as your life goes on.
Another key place where May Day preservation and planning is necessary is the realm of family photographs. More often than not, these items are irreplaceable, but are not factored into our emergency plans. Your photos should be stored in archival safe storage boxes and kept away from light, with a low temperature. Collections should also be stored in an interior room off the floor in storage boxes. If you’re hanging your photos, they should be kept off of exterior walls, away from heat sources like vents, and not hung in humidity-prone places like bathrooms. For more information on these suggestions for photograph preservation, see the NDCC website. Precautions similar to those taken for documents should also be repeated for photographs. Duplicates should be kept elsewhere, mailed offsite, and/or stored digitally.
If your photo collection is damaged by a natural disaster or other emergency, steps can be taken to slow the damage process and encourage salvaging the photographs. The Georgia Archives suggests a specific order for salvaging photographs in order of how quickly water damage could affect the photographs; this starts with immediate salvage of cased photos, glass based negatives or positives, and dye transfer prints. These often have more complicated salvaging processes, and it is recommended that you consult a certified conservator. The National Archives recommends a conservator when dealing with wet or pest-infested records and links to the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ Find a Conservator website. Georgia College Special Collections does not endorse any one specific conservator, but we encourage you to seek outside assistance if your disaster-affected items have severe and extensive damage. If you would like more information about salvaging these types of photos, consult the Georgia Archives fact page for more information.
Photos that are not specialized or historical should be salvaged in the order of those with no negatives or with water damaged negatives, then move on to color prints, black and white prints, and negatives and transparencies. After a disaster involving water, photographs will usually be in muddy or dirty water. (That’s a polite way of saying the water can contain really disgusting materials.) Carefully remove each photo from the water wearing latex gloves, including those wet photo albums, which will need to be deconstructed in order to best save the contents. Photos should be separated without touching the wet emulsion. Photos in frames should be soaked in cold water for 48 hours until the photo separates from the glass, so the photos do not stick to the glass and lose their photo emulsion.
Rinse all photos gently without ever allowing them to touch adjacent surfaces. If you do not have time to properly dry the photos, rinse them in cold water and place them between sheets of wax paper, and then freeze the photos in a ziploc bag if at all possible. This will help contain possible mold growth that can occur after materials become wet. Then, when you have time to dry them, do so by hanging the photos on a clothesline and allowing them to air dry. If you do have the time to properly dry them, do so by using a clean paper towel free of ink as a blotting paper. Change the blotting paper every few hours until fully dry. For more information on the salvage process, the NDCC has excellent, detailed resources concerning the details of photo salvage. And, if you’re interested in learning more about the challenges of preserving digital material like photographs, have a look at our blog post on the common challenges facing archives as we dug through our acquisitions room here at the archive.
We here at Georgia College Special Collections wish you a productive May Day, and encourage you to consider your documents and collections today!
“Caring for Records.” The Georgia Archives, 2017. <http://www.georgiaarchives.org/caring_for_records>
“Essential Family Records.” The Georgia Archives, 2017. <http://www.georgiaarchives.org/documents/caringforrecords/essential_family_records.pdf>
Heritage Health Index Report of America’s Collections. Institute of Museum and Library Services and Heritage Preservation, 2005. https://www.imls.gov/sites/default/files/publications/documents/hhifull_0.pdf
“Water Damaged Photos.” The Georgia Archives, 2017. <http://www.georgiaarchives.org/documents/caringforrecords/water_damaged_photos.pdf>
“3.7 Emergency Salvage of Wet Photographs.” Northeast Document Preservation Center. <https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/3.-emergency-management/3.7-emergency-salvage-of-wet-photographs>
“5.3 Care of Photographs.” Northeast Document Preservation Center. <https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/5.-photographs/5.3-care-of-photographs>
“Repairing Existing Damage to Family Papers and Photographs.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration.