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Preparing an Archives Disaster Plan

History is always in danger. The archival materials we use as touch points to share stories from our past are in a state of jeopardy. 

All historical archives are one spark or storm away from total destruction. There are, however, precautions you can take to prevent total loss. 

We’ll dive into how digital preservation is the key tool for ensuring your history is here for future generations, but first, let’s take a look at some ways to create an archives disaster plan. 

Fire Prevention

A strong fire prevention program covers a wide range of topics: alarms, drills, housekeeping, equipment maintenance and staff training to recognize and eliminate fire hazards. Consider creating or updating policies on smoking and appliances, such as space heaters and hot plates. Also be sure to address lightning protection and incorporate periodic inspections to look for dangers, such as frayed electrical cords, as you build your archives disaster plan.

Fire Suppression

When prevention fails, we look to fire suppression methods. The most common is a sprinkler system. However, this introduces the likelihood of water damage, which can also destroy your holdings. An ideal archival environment contains dry fire suppression, such as powder or halon. 

We understand that these suppression tactics can be expensive to install and maintain. If your archive is small and mostly paper, consider moving it to a facility that maintains archival fire suppression. At minimum, procure a fire-rated cabinet or safe and store your oldest and most valuable items in it. Keep in mind that these containers will only reduce the possibility of destruction by a major fire. However, they can offer greater protection from a small fire or the water produced by a sprinkler system. 

Prepare for Floods

Flood damage can result from heavy rains, broken windows, clogged gutters, broken pipes, leaking roofs or even that upstairs neighbor who forgets to turn off the faucet. It can happen when you least expect it.  

Similar to fire prevention methods, include periodic risk assessment in your archives disaster plan. Clear gutters and drains, check windows and roofing for leaks and ensure no one has placed documents near a window or underneath a sprinkler system. 

Elevate your files and never store them in a basement. A single foot of elevation can make a big difference when disaster strikes. Keep a pump in your disaster preparedness kit to remove excess water for when water rises above your secured storage location.

Research local document restoration companies so that you can act immediately in the event of flooding. Establish a relationship and be sure you know the extent of the services they offer. Timing is key when it comes to saving physical materials that have water damage. 

Lastly, obtain flood insurance, even if you think you don’t need it. In the Louisiana Flood of 2016, 31 inches of rain fell in 15 hours. Almost none of the 83,000 affected households were in a flood zone.

Experiencing Floods

First and foremost, we want to highlight the threat mold poses to your archival materials. Mold starts to form 48–72 hours after items become wet — and it spreads. Fast action matters! Download our free guide for detecting and handling mold in an archive to learn more.

After a flood, once the area is safe to enter, try to make the environment cool and dry to slow the growth of mold. Use a dehumidifier and aim for under 50% humidity and no greater than 70 degrees.

Remove wet cardboard boxes from the space. It will reduce moisture in the area. Also, even when dried, they’re no longer durable. 

For wet materials, use fans to dry waterlogged items, but don’t aim the fans directly at the asset. You can carefully blot excess moisture with clean towels or sponges, but never newspaper or handwritten documents. Do not attempt to separate wet documents and never shred wet documents — unless unjamming shredders is your jam.

Digital Preservation

If an organization has not digitally preserved its holdings, then it will likely lose its entire history in a fire or flood. However, if they have properly digitally preserved their assets, then the knowledge and history connected to their archival materials will be saved for future generations.

Strategy is key. Thinking through every detail and creating a meticulous plan for how to organize, process and share your stories lays a foundation for the entire process. Not doing so can result in redundant work, inaccessible assets or improperly digitally preserved materials.

Quality digital preservation imaging generates reproductions of documents, photos, artifacts, etc. that are the next best thing to actually holding the item. The process also produces archival master files that will last as technology changes. When JPGs are obsolete, your digital preservation efforts won’t be. HistoryIT’s team has thousands of hours of experience and produces image files that exceed the standards outlined by the Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative. 

In digital preservation, metadata becomes a magical tool. HistoryIT’s team conducts thorough research for each client to identify descriptive terms that the target audience commonly uses. We develop metadata in the vernacular to ensure anyone can quickly find the information they’re looking for. 

A powerful digital preservation software ensures you can keep your records and assets organized for perpetuity. With HistoryIT’s proprietary software, Odyssey®, you can build a publicly accessible digital archive that uses the strategically selected metadata terms to connect all related materials and stories. This creates a sharable interactive experience for now and in the future.

Form a Plan

Measures can be taken to reduce damage caused by fires and floods. A great first step is to create an archives disaster plan with detailed actions your organization can take to keep your materials safe. 

With that, digital preservation is the only solution that will ensure your materials are safe during a natural disaster. Reach out to discover how we can help get you started. 

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