Evan Anderson started as our new Stacks Manager two months ago and we welcomed him with a roof leak and then a disaster workshop. Stacks Management is not part of the Preservation Department, but Evan has agreed to be a guest writer on occasion since the departments work so closely together.
The codex has been around for approximately 2,000 years, or more than a quarter of the time humans have been recording information via writing. Though codicologists, historians, and other scholars debate exactly why it quickly and largely superseded the scroll as the dominant storage and transmission medium, there is little question of its general durability. This durability, though, is contingent upon many factors, from the material and construction of the codex, to the conditions it experiences during its lifecycle, to the individuals responsible for preserving and maintaining it.
While this all may be a given, even a codex that is bound well, has sturdy boards, and is kept with care, still faces dangers to its longevity: disasters happen. Books, like people, have bad days sometimes.
On April 19 and 20, the Iowa Conservation & Preservation Consortium, with support from an IMLS Connecting to Collections grant, Iowa Library Services, Iowa Museum Services, and State Historical Society of Iowa, held a workshop called “Disasters Happen: Preparation & Response Training” at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids to address these bad days.
In some ways, for me, this workshop came about a week too late. The Library Storage Building (the University Library’s off-site storage facility) has a particular problem: the roof leaks. It leaks, not always, but enough, and though typically in the same spots, water does like to travel, so once in a while a new leak occurs. Friday, April 13 was one such ‘once in a while.’ Though the leak was neither prodigious in quantity of water nor in size of flow, it was persistent enough to affect several score of books. With the assistance of Preservation staff, we began the process of drying out damp books, freezing the more profoundly damaged, and, sadly, discarding some irrevocably moldy volumes. This crash course in a wet book crisis informed my analysis of the “Disasters Happen” workshop. As information was presented, I considered whether it was something I should have done, or not have done, or, at the very least contemplated, and then considered how I could incorporate these lessons into future crises. Sadly, I do know for sure that there will be other crises.
Though I had read the procedures at Iowa State and have had coursework that touched on disaster planning and emergency response, the workshop and the pre-workshop experience demonstrated the absolute necessity of not only developing a plan (or plans) and being cognizant of said plans, but also actually executing said plans and not just reacting as the situation unfolds (a tenuous strategy at best, a horrible exponential scaling of a disaster at worst).
In no part of the workshop was this more amply demonstrated than the concluding mock disaster drill. We had been presented with information on how to handle various media when afflicted by various problems, how to plan, and what to consider, and now forced to put this into work. The small group I was a part of assigned roles and attempted to execute a plan, when an outsider decided to ‘join’ and take action, damaging materials, violating collection decisions, ignoring input: in short, generally contributing mostly harm. Although frustrating at the time, I found this to be highly instructive upon reflection.
Books may be very durable over the long term, but they can face extreme, adverse conditions. And, as durable as they are, they cannot plan accordingly, so we must. And helping a codex cope with a catastrophe directly comes from creating, committing to, and carrying out a well-conceived plan. Doing so will ensure that in a few hundred years when all our newfangled digital technologies are hopelessly obsolete and all their electrons have escaped, our print books can still be accessed for all the thousands of years of knowledge we’ve contained within them.