Before Disaster Strikes
By Robert Schroeder
As Japan's nuclear reactors teetered on the brink of destruction following March's earthquake and tsunami, clouds of radiation caught Pacific winds and carried to the mainland United States. It took several weeks after the first readings of radiation in California, but even Chicago registered trace amounts of radiation.
The radiation was harmless to humans, but what about society's most vulnerable artifacts and treasures? Across the city, including at National Louis University's Chicago campus, archivists were facing a critical question: how to react to an unplanned potential disaster situation.
National Louis University archivist Mark Burnette, assistant professor in the University Library, attended "Preparing for the Unexpected: Disaster Planning for Cultural Collections," presented by the Conservation Center for Arts and Historic Artifacts on May 3 at Chicago's Newberry Library. The conference brought together historians and archivists from around the state to share best practices in disaster management.
"This will go a long way towards a long-range development response plan and a disaster response plan," Burnette said. "These are required for best practices not only in the library in general but in the archives in particular: what to do in various situations, and who is responsible for what in those certain circumstances."
While the radiation threat in Chicago was minimal for archival damage, nothing more than slightly speeding up the aging of photos and drawings, the city is no stranger to preservation catastrophe. In the 1986, a burst water main flooded the basement of the Chicago History Museum, damaging hundreds of artifacts. As the flood waters contacted the building's boilers, copious steam traveled through the museum's vents, causing molding and water damage to artifacts above ground. In 1996, a fire at a Phoenix warehouse destroyed the 3,663 pipes of the old Chicago Stadium Barton organ, the largest theater organ ever built.
National Louis University's archives are located well above ground level, but the primary concerns facing Burnette still involve water. The tiled ceiling could leak, or a fire could activate the sprinkler system. Burnette's response plan includes physical supplies like large plastic sheets to cover archived materials, but organizing the human capital involved is the tougher task.
"There are a number of interrelated networks of support and people that are brought into this to be made aware of what's happening here," Burnette said. "We have our facilities people who are responsible for the physical plant, they have to deal with people in charge of the building, and beyond that there are public safety organizations like police and fire that have to be coordinated. "It's not something you can just sit and plan to deal with ourselves; it's something that involves greater numbers of people outside the University and city as well."
Chicago's location largely shields it from earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and other forces. While tornadoes are a factor at National Louis' suburban campuses, twisters rarely hit downtown Chicago. That leaves Burnette managing the more mundane aspects of disaster readiness, like temperature management, humidity control, and light saturation, but the development of long range plans will include contingencies for dealing with the worst.