1. Intro

An emergency situation could occur very quickly in a large 1960s building, busy with staff, contractors, complex electrical circuits and water points – not to mention the unreliable British weather.  At the Churchill Archives Centre, we rely on our Disaster Contingency Plan that is updated once a year, to keep us prepared for all eventualities. Even if all people involved are aware of the plan, living the experience of a disaster is completely different and staff need to be trained occasionally with real life scenarios. This sort of training should help prevent inaction or impetuous decisions which would ultimately help us to save unique materials of national importance more efficiently.

2. Preparation

The success of a training day like this relies on the effort put in the preparation. All the staff involved in the reaction and recovery of the collection, including the maintenance and housekeeping departments as well as the porters, were invited. Also, all the tools and materials needed in case of a flood disaster had to be accessible and ready to use on the day. Finally, dummy archive boxes were created for the occasion using books, photographs and paper documents housed in our standard four-flap folders and boxes. These were very representative of our real collections.

Tables set up in the Jock Colville Hall with disaster response supplies laid out

Figure 1: Preparing all the material for the training day including fans and blotting paper.

3. Morning

The day started with Sarah Lewery, our Senior Conservator, familiarising staff with the Disaster Plan using Power Point.

Conservator Sarah Lewery giving a powerpoint presentation to a group of staff in the Jock Colville Hall

Figure 2: Theory session in the morning with Sarah Lewery familiarising staff with our Disaster Plan using Power Point.

For the second part of the morning, we walked through the College and looked at all the spaces and materials within the College that could be used in event of a disaster, large or small. This included fans, a wet vacuum cleaner, trolleys, tables and the disaster cabinet containing a lot of useful materials such as blotters, emergency lights, PPE, etc. We also looked at the location of switches for electricity and stopcocks for water as well as the fire road for the fire appliances to reach the Archives Centre. We looked at the rooms around College that we have designated for possible use in an emergency for storing, drying or packing recovered material.

A group of staff standing outside the Archives Centre listening to Conservator Sarah Lewery speak. Sarah is holding a power extension cable.

Figure 3: Staff walking through the College and looking at all the spaces and materials within the College that could be used in event of a disaster.

The morning ended with Sarah and me showing how to sheet up shelves to protect them from getting wet. Finally, in the dark and with a torch, we demonstrated the reflective labels that prioritise our most important collections.

Two archivists standing on kick steps and holding a large polythene sheet which they are using to cover up the shelves to protect against water damage from above.

Figure 4: Sarah Lewery and me showing how to sheet up shelves to protect them from getting wet.

4. Afternoon

The afternoon was dedicated to practical exercises for the Archives Centre and Library staff only. We had prepared a few soaked or partially wet boxes – some wetted from the bottom or the top. We also prepared some just damp and some dry boxes. We explained how to salvage them from the storage area then how they would go to the sorting team, where they would be sorted out by their level of damage before sending them either to the packing team or drying/treatment team.

Sarah demonstrated what we would do with boxes soaked in water. Some of them were partially filled with water and the easiest thing to do in this scenario would be to send them to a specialist drying company called Harwell Document Restoration Services for freezing (only if they don’t contain audio-visual materials or glass negatives which cannot be frozen). We demonstrated how to pierce a hole in the bottom of the box to slowly drain the water before packing the box to be sent.

A cardboard archival box being held over a plastic crate. The cardboard box is very wet and water is draining out of it into the crate below.

Figure 5: Draining the water from the soaked box by piercing a hole in the bottom.

If soaked boxes cannot be treated in-house, the ones that are partially wet may be, if their number is not considerably high. We demonstrated how we would treat wet photographs housed individually in polyester sleeves or not. We learned how to dry a file of paper documents without upsetting the order, which is essential as, though folders are referenced, individual documents within them are not. We created a wind tunnel by placing a fan under a table covered with a plastic sheet. In this tunnel, we left hard cover books to dry on their edge. This technique considerably increases the drying speed and does not take a massive amount of space.

A variety of cardboard archival boxes laid out on a white sheet. Some are visibly waterlogged while others are just a bit damp. Staff are gathered around, examining them.

Figure 6: Sorting out boxes by level of damage.

Staff are leaning over a variety of documents laid out on a table, and are carefully handling them and using blotting paper and new enclosures to sort and dry the documents.

Figure 7: Staff practicing at drying documents.

5. Conclusion

Even if a day like this takes a long time to prepare, it is worth it. Everyone found the training useful and feedback was positive. If a fire or flood occurred, we do feel that we would be more prepared and, even though instruction would have to be repeated, staff would feel more comfortable and confident in what they are doing. If a disaster happens, many things will not go the way we anticipated and new unexpected elements will arise. This is why it is important to try to plan as much as possible for the predictable so that we can be more calm and prepared for the unpredictable events.

Erica D’Alessandro

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