That smell… even today as I walk through the Recovery Center building, I can catch a whiff of that smell of mud and muck and total disaster combined with a slightly chemical scent from the treatments the materials received.
On February 13, 2008, when the LAC Group team walked in to the Tulane Libraries Recovery Center, it was an empty building located about three miles from the university’s main campus. It was our job to help return the library to pre-Hurricane Katrina status, as closely as possible and as soon as possible, to meet Tulane’s priorities and deadlines. We immediately began acquiring all the furnishings and technology needed to begin the project.
Library disaster recovery challenges
Initially our biggest challenge was what really constituted an “item” and how many actual items we were going to handle. The damaged materials had been scooped up after the storm by Belfor, a company that specializes in disaster recovery and property restoration. Belfor restored and rebound the materials they felt were salvageable and returned them to the Recovery Center.
By the time we arrived, dozens of pallets stacked with boxes of materials had been returned. However, it immediately became apparent that the number of items involved and the level of work needed was far greater than estimated.
Cleaning and disinfecting books and other materials
Of course, cleaning and disinfecting are the first considerations after any natural disaster. While we were not involved in that process, it’s necessary to turn to experts like Belfor, especially for high-value collections. You will also need to determine whether to salvage materials or replace them—in most cases, it will be combination of both. Even after expert cleaning, disinfection and restoration work like rebinding, final inspection should be done. For example, all of Tulane’s materials had been gamma irradiated to kill any living mold, yet we still found an occasional instance where mold was evident.
Setting library restoration priorities
Any disaster will have its own unique challenges, but having a good disaster recovery plan in place that outlines the general steps that will be taken is a necessity. In the event that disaster does strike, you will have to identify your recovery priorities, especially with limited staffing and other resources. For Tulane Libraries, the first priority we were given was to return the music collection to the library before the Fall 2008 semester began. We had to unpack, bar-code and adjust records for over 30,000 items in just under 3 months.
We worked very closely with the client, holding weekly meetings throughout the life of the project to ensure we were on track. This close working relationship contributed to a successful outcome, because we could quickly respond to any issues we encountered and adapt as needed.
Library staffing for a disaster recovery project
After the initial clean-up and assessment, staffing is one of the biggest challenges faced after a serious disaster like a hurricane. You and your employees continue to have your regular library responsibilities, along with work-related restoration tasks and everyone’s personal recovery needs and problems.
Due to the intensity of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was still in recovery mode as a city. Much of the population had not returned so we had to look outside the area for staff, some of whom moved to New Orleans from other states, causing slight relocation delays. At the highest level of staffing, we had 26 people working on various components of the recovery project. The right mix of staff that could fit into a production-based environment was crucial to the success of the project.
I learned that having team leaders with the right level of expertise was extremely important. As Project Manager, early on I realized that cross-training individuals was going to be vital to allow us to move individuals across the operation to address the most pressing needs at any given time.
We also assisted with an acquisitions project, purchasing and processing thousands of replacement items that had been lost to the storm. These were primarily music materials and non-print media, for which we had to find professional catalogers to for the specialized cataloging they required. We also cataloged several thousand foreign language materials across a wide array of languages.
In addition, the library realized it did not have the staff to re-shelve all the materials to meet the required timelines, so we signed a new contract to provide a re-shelving team.
Protecting worker health and safety after disaster
Although the materials were fully cleaned, disinfected and rebound for us, all staff in the Recovery Center were affected by the chemical odor, and nothing but time and ventilation will take care of that smell. As each box was opened, the chemical smell would hit and permeate the air along with dust from some paper. We had to invest in air cleaners for smaller rooms and offices and protective gear like face masks and gloves for anyone working with the materials because of the chemical off-gassing and the surprising amount of residue.
Managing project completion expectations
All you want is to return to normal—that’s true for any disaster recovery efforts. Yet, I caution you to be realistic, because unforeseen issues will occur. It’s better to add a cushion than to face even more disappointment and frustration. For example, do not expect materials to be returned 100% accurate from the cleaning and restoration process—we discovered many of the call numbers printed on the spines by the binding company were incorrect, adding an unplanned re-labeling operation.
Additional library collection recovery findings:
- Some materials simply do not hold up well to the cleaning process. Materials with glossy paper, for example, really disintegrated.
- Recognize that materials that are rare and salvaged are no longer truly rare.
- Most photographs were completely ruined as was any document that had been written in ink, yet pencil documents survived.
- Telegrams looked like a word puzzle or “ransom note” as often the words had been glued on and subsequently fell off the page.
- Collections were jumbled, with items totally mixed together. Determining what belonged with each collection was a daunting, far greater task than initially considered.
Throughout the project our primary goal was to have our material-handling done exactly the way it would have been done in-house, matching not only the same level of care but the systems and procedures. We relied on local guidance and replicated equipment such as labeling stations to match what was used within Tulane Libraries.
The library does return to normalcy
The Tulane Libraries recovery project ended up having multiple components running simultaneously and expanded in scope as time went on. By the time we had completed the recovery, over 1.5 million items had been processed. What was supposed to take 2 years took nearly 6 years.
It was a massive endeavor, far greater than originally anticipated, yet ultimately a major learning process and rewarding experience.
The toll of natural disasters on life and property are tremendous. All of us at LAC Group empathize with those of you now facing Harvey and Irma cleanup and restoration efforts. We wish you the best, and hope that you found this article helpful.