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Keeping documents, artifacts safe when disaster hits

July 19, 2014 Updated: July 19, 2014 at 1:47 pm
Caption +
Photo archivist Bill Thomas show how the library preserves old negatives in acid-free sleeves and in a controlled humidity and temperature vault Thursday, July 17, 2014, in the special collections department at Pikes Peak Library District's Penrose Library. The photo is a picture of A. L. Bolson, one of the miners deported after participating in the 1904 mining strikes in Cripple Creek. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Tim Blevins and Dennis Daily, who manage the special collections at the Penrose Library, carry small pocket-size planners at all times. When unfurled, they have access to everything they need to know in case of disaster - how to call FEMA and first responders, facilities layouts, location of building shutoffs and fire extinguishers, and how to muster the library staff's disaster team.

When disaster strikes, public attention is usually on businesses, homes and highways. Most people give little thought to the fate of the irreplaceable historical records housed at places such as the library and Pikes Peak Pioneers Museum.

But those charged with overseeing our region's history and genealogy records have been as determined as foresters and highway workers to mitigate the dangers unleashed by Mother Nature.

And their preparations can be a helpful road map for local homeowners to follow to save their cherished possessions.

The library's special collections is home to more than 28,500 maps, books and pamphlets; 14,250 rolls of microfilm including newspaper articles, photos and other records; 1,500 linear feet of unpublished archival material, and 47 miles of movie film.

The four-story Pioneers Museum has 75,000 three-dimensional artifacts and 6,300 cubic feet of documents, which equates to 80,000 photographs and millions of documents, said Matt Mayberry museum director.

Blevins said that their risk analysis indicates it would take a 500-year flood to get near the Penrose Library, and more to get to the door.

"We feel we are in a pretty good physical location, and not as vulnerable as some places downtown," he said.

The same goes for the museum.

There have been no disasters at the two facilities, and while much of that has to do with the vagaries of Mother Nature, mitigation foresight has helped.

For example, two weeks ago a hail storm clogged an exterior drain near the museum and about a quarter-inch of water seeped into a portion of the basement. There were no valuables in the area.

"This is a good example of why we do what we do," Mayberry said. "We store away from exterior walls and off the ground at least 4 inches. The museum is in an old building with old pipes, so we keep away from those, too.

Some cultural places have not been so lucky.

In 1997, the Spring Creek flood raged through Colorado State University at Fort Collins. Morgan Library collapsed and water smashed through the many tall windows that had been built to take advantage of the views. Shelving toppled and the mud and water rose to 8 feet, ruining nearly a half million books.

Last September, the North Platte River flooded the Overland Trail Museum in Sterling.

"We had three days notice but we didn't know how bad it was going to be, or where the water would go," said Wade Gandee, director of Sterling Parks, Library and Recreation.

They moved items to the second floors of the buildings, including fossils, historic maps and pieces of thousand-year-old pottery. They sandbagged and boarded up windows. But roiling water rose 5 feet in two main buildings, covering Items that could not be moved such as the old stage coach and printing press.

"We had a 100-year-flood plan in place, but it ended up being more like a 600-year to 1,000-year flood," Gandee said.

The museum is insured. Damage could reach anywhere from $700,000 to $1 million, he said.

The Ute Pass Historical Society & Pikes Peak Museum in Woodland Park, which was only blocks from the evacuation zone during the Waldo Canyon fire, trucked artifacts to the old train depot in Divide. The museum was not harmed. Judy Perkins, office manager, was stuck in Colorado Springs when U.S. 24 closed.

"I was totally worried. It was horrible," she said.

They have since updated their disaster plan, she said. Items labeled with red dots - including such things as office papers, the old Midland Railroad Band's drum and historic saddles - are the first to go. A list of items to be evacuated is now posted in each of the museum's six cabins.

"It was a hectic time, but we feel more comfortable after that dry run," collections manager Karla Schweitzer said.

Pioneers Museum and Penrose Library are not in extreme flood plains or wildfire areas.

Special collections are in the Carnegie Library, which is adjacent to and part of the Penrose Library on Cascade Avenue. The Antlers Hotel burned to the ground in 1898, and with that in mind, Carnegie was constructed out of bricks in 1905 to make it fireproof, Blevins said. But, he added, "there's no guarantee that it really is."

The museum is also in a historic building made of stone and steel, which provides some protection.

Both Carnegie and the museum shun sprinklers because water can devastate collections. Water causes mold, creates sticky pages and can obliterate printing and emulsion on photos.

Their disaster plans call for paper-friendly fire extinguishers and quick action from first responders. There's a fire station two minutes from the museum, and three stations near the library. The responders would use water if the size of the fire requires it.

This year, firefighters visited the library to better understand which items are the most important and which are most vulnerable to water, Blevins said. One change that came out of that meeting was the addition of chemical fire extinguishers in certain areas.

Both facilities have storage vaults. Carnegie's Special Collections has a fortlike room with 18-inch walls and a fire suppression system where oxygen is automatically sucked out of the space to extinguish fires. Thousands of precious items occupy the space, including a leaf from a 1450s Gutenberg Bible; a first edition of Zebulon Pike's account of his exploration; and a first edition of Dr. Edward James' account of the Long Expedition to Pikes Peak.

During the Waldo Canyon fire, library staff draped the archive shelves with plastic to protect them from water in case the fire spread downtown. They also moved more items into the vault and trucked materials to the East Library vault far from the blaze.

Interior climate is an important consideration.

"Documents are comfortable in the same climate and conditions that people are comfortable in," Mayberry says. "In Colorado we usually have to humidify. When we talk to museum people in Chicago and Washington, D.C., they have to spend a lot of time dehumidifying."

Carnegie uses data loggers to collect information on the inside climate every 30 seconds. The information is downloaded onto a computer, which plots what changes can be made to reach ideal humidity and temperature.

Lighting and sunlight also can damage valuables. The museum has reflective film on windows, and UV protection on lighting.

"People always wonder why it is so dim in a museum," Mayberry said. "It's because we are protecting items that are sensitive."

And then there are the rodents. Pests are dealt with through extremely good housekeeping practices and traps.

"They will eat anything they can find," Mayberry said.

Silverfish bugs can also do damage because they love paper. They often show up in old cardboard boxes when materials are sent to the museum.

"We quarantine the boxes coming in to make sure there are no infestations, and treat them if there are signs of it," Mayberry said.

Recent fires and floods across the state have brought this sort of preservation preparedness to the forefront for many institutions, said Rebecca Hunt, assistant history professor at University of Colorado at Denver.

She pointed out that several initiatives exist to help staffs of museums, libraries and archives with disaster planning, evacuation and restoration. Among them is the Colorado Cultural and Historic Resources Alliance, which monitors cultural locations during disasters and works with FEMA and other emergency preparedness and emergency operations centers.

"It was born when historians and museum curators realized no one was taking a leadership role on behalf of historical sites during disasters," Hunt said.

Another group, Colorado Connecting to Collections, provides free workshops and site assessments for curators and historians statewide. The Center of Preservation Research at CU Denver has put together faculty teams from various disciplines to help document historic towns and ranches, and helped with damaged historic properties such as the 2013 floods.

"We are entering an age of climate uncertainty and we have to plan ahead," Hunt said.

And that planning keeps so many valuable possessions safe.

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