Disaster Planning: Do Something

A month or so back, the ProjectARCC blog featured a blog post titled “Doomsday Preppers,” about the fact that preparing for disaster is one of the most important functions of an archivist. Most of the standard functions that we practice as archivists — creating backup copies of digital files, storing physical items in safe and protective containers, making sure that we track when and where our collections are at all times — serve as a form of protection against disaster.

But how do you actually go about planning for the kinds of major disasters that climate change scientists have been warning us to expect? What happens when you really do get the flood or the earthquake that you always knew was a possibility, but never really thought was going to happen at your institution?

Many archives and cultural heritage organizations have disaster plans, which provide solid, practical instructions on how to cope with an emergency — what precautions to take, who to contact, and what the first steps should be to protect the collections when a disaster hits. If your institution doesn’t have a disaster plan yet, the Society of American Archivists has a great Annotated Resources page full of disaster plan templates, examples, tutorials and bibliographies to help make the process of developing one a little easier.

However, even if your institution already has the best disaster plan imaginable, archivists are busy people; with deadlines for grants and projects and fiscal years looming over our heads, preparing for some kind of abstract catastrophe can often take a back burner. If your institution does have a disaster plan, when was the last time you actually looked it up and read it? How often does someone take a look at it to make sure it’s up to date — and how long does it take to push changes through the bureaucracy to approve it? Are new employees aware of it, and what information it contains, and how to find it if the emergency actually does take place?

One of the best resources for improving ongoing disaster preparedness in archives in cultural heritage institutions is COSTEP, the Coordinated Statewide Emergency Preparedness Framework, developed by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). COSTEP encourages cultural institutions to work together on a statewide level with emergency management agencies and first responders. The state of Massachusetts currently has a thriving official COSTEP program, which hosts regular meetings and trainings, and hopefully other states will follow suit.

However, even if you’re not ready to spearhead an official statewide COSTEP initiative, the COSTEP Framework document has a number of fantastic recommendations about how to build relationships and prepare for disaster within a community before disaster occurs.

Speaking of workshops, taking any kind of disaster preparedness workshop — either cultural institution-specific ones, such as those offered by the NEDCC, or more general ones like those offered by the Red Cross — is a good way to become aware of hazards and disaster resources in your area.

Still, no matter how prepared you and your institution are, there’s always going to be some disasters that can’t be prevented by any amount of planning. The archival community has generated resources to help cultural institutions post-disaster, too. The National Disaster Recovery Fund for Archives was originally created to assist archives recovering from Hurricane Katrina; it’s since expanded its mandate to support the recovery of archives from any major disaster, and can provide up to $2,000 in initial emergency funding.

While I’m sure all of us hope that we’ll never need to apply for that funding, I know, for one, I’m glad to know now that it’s there and available — staying aware of these kind of resources, just in case, is one more way of being prepared.

— Rebecca Fraimow

Do you have more ideas for archivists to improve their disaster planning? Consider joining the Protect Committee as part of ProjectARCC. Our next meeting is Wednesday, October 21st. We’ll be discussing developing relationships with similar projects and mapping archival disasters.

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