Preservation Services Collections Emergency Response Workshop

by Debra CuocoPaper Conservator for Special Collections, Weissman Preservation Center



Preservation Services Collections Emergency Response Workshop title slide.

“There is a lot an individual can do to be prepared for potential collections emergencies.”

“Loved the hands-on practice.” “The importance of communication.”

- Participant Feedback


Every two years, Harvard Library Preservation Services hosts a day-long workshop on Library Collections Emergency Response. An integral part of the workshop is a hands-on simulation of a collections emergency, complete with wet books, boxes, and audiovisual material. As with most work this year, Preservation Services had to pivot to a new way of working and teaching, from in-person to virtual. The day-long workshop was broken up into four one-hour sessions over four consecutive weeks in January-February 2021. Curriculum was rewritten, reorganized, and retrofitted to a Zoom environment. What remained the same was the content: the first steps to take upon discovery of an emergency, what you might encounter, where the library intersects with other groups during an emergency response, and the importance of communication.


Each session highlighted a different critical aspect of emergency response. Four organizers from Harvard Library Preservation Services shared the responsibilities of hosting, teaching, and moderating sessions: Priscilla Anderson, Lauren Telepak, Elizabeth Walters, and Debra Cuoco. Sessions were supported by colleagues across the university who provided their expertise, experience, and insight. In lieu of in-person response activities, Zoom breakout room exercises simulated real emergencies and helped groups gain the confidence they need to respond effectively to a real emergency.


Session One: Safety First


Health and Safety, six categories of threats: human, fire, structural, electrical, biohazards, and chemical.


Session One focused on safety, examining the different types of hazards one might encounter during a collections emergency. Hazards do not occur singularly. A fire hazard often becomes a water hazard. A water-based hazard such as a burst pipe can also become a structural hazard if, for example, ceiling tiles become saturated with water and collapse. A water hazard also runs the risk of creating a mold biohazard if not detected and addressed quickly. We heard from colleagues across campus, including Lt. Bill Chipman of HUPD, Scott Waite of FAS Library Operations, and John Avedian of Environmental Health and Safety, on their roles during an emergency and what we should do when encountering these hazards. Emphasized by all was that our personal safety comes first. Our natural instincts may be to rush in and protect the collections, but human safety is most important, and there is time to assess the situation and risks before taking steps to secure the collections.


Session Two: Rapid Assessment

Rapid Assessment Exercise: id source of the problem; location of collections damaged or at risk;quantity/type of materials.

Session Two allowed us to role play through an emergency scenario. We created a mock emergency in “Remy Library”, breaking out into groups to discuss the emergency, what and where the library materials were affected, whom we needed to contact, and whether there were any safety concerns. Groups then placed a phone call to a Library Collections Emergency Team (LCET) member to report the emergency. It was an enriching exercise for participants and LCET members alike on assessment and the value of good communication. Role playing is a great way to reduce stress during a real emergency, by familiarizing oneself with the types of questions and scenarios that might occur. Priscilla Anderson moderated an informative conversation with Flory Makuwa of the Harvard Divinity School on Facilities and Operations’ roles in a collections emergency. Operations staff are often the first ones on site in an emergency, and play an invaluable part in mitigating its impact. Flory offered great tips, such as having one point of contact for each group to maintain a clear channel of information exchange. Each group has a different role to play, and clear communication is necessary for each of them to do their part.


Session Three: Preventing Further Damage

Three people draping library shelving in plastic sheeting.

Session Three delved deeper into rapid response activities. Documentation is important at all stages of an emergency. An initial assessment is crucial for determining the next steps. Key areas to document are noting where and how collections were affected, types of materials that may be affected and are priorities for recovery, such as audiovisual materials in a water event, and quantity of collections impacted. We learned about basic response activities that could reduce damage to collections such as draping plastic over shelves to keep them from additional water damage and how to carefully move items that have become more fragile and heavy when wet. To help refine our problem-solving skills, we broke up into small groups for a tabletop emergency scenario and focused on identifying the questions we should ask at each stage of a real emergency.


Session Four: Case Studies and Managing Stress


Screen shot of Zoom gallery view showing 25 presenters and attendees.


Session Four wrapped up the workshop with case studies from staff at two Harvard libraries. Jessica Murphy and Amber LaFountain from the Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library discussed a recurrent leak issue and how they responded to and documented it, using techniques and knowledge gained from prior emergency trainings. To document the leak, they used a Sharpie to mark the outline each time a water stain occurred on the ceiling tiles. This helped them and Operations pinpoint the issue and resolve the leak. Melissa Renn and Debra Cuoco of the Harvard Business School’s Baker Library discussed their response to an emergency with the Baker art collection and the importance of communication and building relationships with Operations staff. We ended the workshop with an important conversation about mental health and managing stress during an emergency with Kristin Matthews of KGA, Inc, which administers Harvard’s Employee Assistance Program.


The participants learned a lot from the workshop, and we did too. Collections emergencies continue to occur whether staff is onsite or remote. The organizers flexed their creative muscles to turn an event with a strong hands-on component into a successful virtual experience, engaging the group with a variety of small and large group activities to help them navigate a stressful event.


Interested in learning more? Follow the links below!



See also: Prevention