May Day, MayDay: Saving Our Archives

May 1st to some symbolizes the start of bright, sunny weather and flowers peeking their heads from their leaves. To others, it reminds them of the tradition of children surprising friends with special baskets with flowers, popcorn, and treats. The phrase MayDay is also recognized as a cry for help derived from the French term m’aidez, which is precisely the reason why the Society of American Archivists (SAA) dedicated this day as a call to action for librarians, archivists and other cultural heritage professionals to think about their emergency and disaster preparedness plans for their institutions and organizations.

Natural and man-made disasters have the potential to damage or destroy cultural and historical collections. Without an emergency plan in place many institutions, organizations, and even individuals may not be able to save as many of their collections as they may have liked. MayDay Initiative is a day when professionals and individuals must take time to review or take action in planning for emergencies. The awareness of risks (i.e., water, fire, pests, natural disasters) can help mitigate the potential damage affected by any type of emergency.

We can accomplish this in small ways such as examining where we store items, making a list of where all the materials are housed (both physical and digital), knowing were piping and fire suppression is located, making a list of local emergency responders, and more. There are several resources one can use when assembling an emergency plan, such as Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC)’s Emergency Management: 3.3 Emergency Planning, SAA’s Annotated Resources and Ideas for MayDay Activities, and the Library of Congress’s Emergency Management documents.

In Iowa during times of emergencies, cultural repositories can call upon the expertise of Iowa Museums, Archives, and Libraries Emergency Response Team (IMALERT). Their mission is to “to respond to the needs of cultural institutions during emergencies and disasters through coordinated efforts with first responders, state and local agencies, vendors, and the public.

In the summer of 2019, we had a water emergency on our public floor. A water fountain had started to leak water on a day that staff was off for a holiday. On the following day, one of our staff members found a not-so-fun surprise awaiting her. Here is a quote from the staff member who handled the emergency:

I arrived to find our custodian setting orange cones about and looking a bit bewildered. A quick look around the water fountain area and a short conversation later, I was looking for a shop vac and seeing where the water had migrated. I was able to ascertain the materials in the nearby map cases were not damaged as there was about a 4” base keeping the bottom drawer high and dry, and the water that had moved into the closed stack area was well below the raised flooring.

From then on it was just a matter of using the vacuum and figuring out how to empty it before it got too heavy for me to handle! By the time I did that, more help had arrived!

Know where your emergency equipment is stored! I couldn’t find the shop vac and lost some valuable minutes there. Keep calm and carry on!

Our disaster was a minor one which thankfully did not damage any materials. From this incident, we did get to rearrange our space to make a space for better access to our archives and manuscripts and for instruction.

Archives Alcove in the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center


May Day! May Day!Primary Selections from Special Collections. The Davenport Public Library, May 1 2008.

(posted by Kathryn)

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