Book Squad 911

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  March 16, 2011

On the state level, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners developed an emergency assistance program for cultural institutions. They've stored caches of emergency supplies throughout the state — notably, a device known as the Rescube, an easily freeze-dried crate with holes to drain excess water.

Meanwhile, the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) helped form a Massachusetts chapter of the national organization COSTEP (or Coordinated Statewide Emergency Preparedness), co-chaired by Trinkaus-Randall and assistant state archivist Michael Comeau.

Regularly, COSTEP — which offers $25,000 grants to help libraries recover from disaster — meets with police chiefs, firefighters, and others from the emergency-response community to discuss worst-case scenarios. They send out weather alerts to their network. Two years ago, the NEDCC created a free online disaster-planning tool called dPlan, leaving even the busiest or most daunted librarians little excuse to prepare for the worst. Still, says Trinkaus-Randall, "a problem that we have is that people can go to workshops on disaster preparedness and not complete their plans."

Lori Foley, a preservation specialist with the NEDCC, answers their disaster-assistance hotline. Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she and her colleagues are available 24/7 to cultural institutions that have suffered a disaster.

One of the first things she asks callers is if they have a disaster plan. "It's vitally important for recovery and moving forward, whether it's a small water leak or a larger flood," Foley says. But in a recent survey of Massachusetts cultural institutions, only nine percent of the respondents had an up-to-date disaster plan and the staff trained to implement it.

Even if an institution doesn't have a plan, she won't turn them away. "We help people think through and talk through what their options are for recovering these materials," she says. "If they haven't called us, we'll call them to see if they need any immediate assistance."

Foley has a list of questions for callers that she's committed to heart. She asks about their collection, what the disaster is, how long ago it happened, who discovered it, what has been done so far, if they've been able to assess damage, what kinds of materials were affected, if they can give an estimate on the quantity of damaged materials. She talks them through the options that they have for restoring order.

"We would much rather get the phone call of someone hysterical and screaming right after the event than three or four days after," she says.

Foley gets the most calls in the spring, during flood season, and in the fall, when the mold sets in. If carpets and shelves aren't dried properly after a flood, a library is in store for a mold emergency. Mold blooms. Mold spreads. Mold ruins books. If it's not addressed right away, it's too late.

"Mold is everywhere. We're breathing it as we're speaking — gross!" she says. "[But] when the conditions are right — when the temperature is elevated over 70 degrees and the relative humidity is over 50 percent — the likelihood that a mold outbreak will occur [increases]."

If a library isn't yet covered in mold, she refers her callers to the NEDCC Web site, which offers a number of printable disaster leaflets, including "Protection and Loss: Water and Fire Damage, Biological Agents, Theft, and Vandalism." When things are really bad, it's time to call in the book squad.

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