The dreaded call from a colleague with a collections emergency is one that no conservator wants to receive; but it has happened to many of us. Small-scale incidents are more common than major emergencies, but planning for an emergency situation of any scale involves a great deal of work to ensure a plan is in place, the right equipment is available and the response will be effective. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Florence floods; and with more recent disasters like the fires at Clandon Park and Glasgow School of Art on our minds, emergency preparedness seems more necessary than ever.
On 3rd October 2016, Icon’s Care of Collections Group (CCG) held a conference ominously titled “Fail to Plan, and Plan to Fail”, followed by their AGM. The event was held at the British Library and included a tour of the book stacks and salvage equipment storage areas, and demonstrations of the library’s emergency plan on a smartphone (more on this later).
The conference was opened by Emma Dadson, Divisional Manager at Harwell Document Restoration Services. Emma has a wealth of experience in collections salvage, providing training courses in emergency and salvage response across the country. Her talk on this subject was a thoughtful introduction to the day.
Sarah Hamlyn from the British Library spoke about their work on making their emergency plan accessible via a smart phone. As I sat tweeting about the event, I thought about how much more potential my phone had as a tool than as a device for scrolling through social media. Making an emergency plan more accessible and portable – without the need to wade through a huge folder of information – was proving to be a success.The lunch break provided some time to visit the British Library stacks and the emergency supplies storage and facilities. The response area was impressive in its size and ingenuity. A highlight was seeing the wind tunnels emerge from the walls to facilitate book drying and double up as a triage area.
The afternoon talks focused on collaboration, and Fiona Macalister spoke on the wider emergency networks that exist to offer assistance when emergencies become too large to be handled alone. There were also fascinating talks from the conservators at AOC Archaeology and Sharon Robinson from the Museum of London. The AOC conservators described how the items removed from the Glasgow Art School fire site had been recorded like archaeological finds; the quantity and fragmentary nature of the material being saved from the site meant that this approach was the most straightforward and precise for documentation purposes. Sharon Robinson then explained how recent work carried out by Museum of London had enabled 250 museums across the city to receive training, equipment and assistance with their own emergency plans. There is a wealth of information on the museum’s website, including the emergency planning e-learning tool.
The final speaker of the day was Daniel Heath Cull from Historic Royal Palaces (HRP). His account of having organised a full-scale emergency exercise at the Tower of London was insightful and provided us with many great images to enjoy! The one-day exercise had involved the emergency services, HRP staff, civilian volunteers and actors. The scale was certainly impressive and the lessons learned were useful and surprising. Ensuring there are refreshments for responders and that breaks are taken, as the environment is high pressure, were cited as some of the most important ones. A huge amount of planning had gone into arranging this exercise and it was a unique opportunity to put the planning into practice. The talk was fascinating.
A conference focused on emergency preparedness and response can run the risk of scaring its delegates. This conference, however, had an incredibly positive atmosphere, concentrating on the need for collaboration, demonstrating how good planning can really help in emergency situations and offering ideas and solutions. I left the British Library feeling inspired (rather than muttering to myself, asking a series of questions about possible disasters: Is our emergency plan up to scratch? Do we have enough salvage equipment? How do I make a wind tunnel…?) and looking forward to revisiting and developing our emergency plan with my colleagues. I would like to thank Icon’s Care of Collections Group and the British Library for arranging such a motivating and helpful event.
Alex Walker has been a preventive conservator at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, for three years. Before this she spent a year as an HLF/Icon intern at the Museum of London, in Collections Care. She studied Preventive Conservation at Northumbria University and Paper Conservation at Camberwell College of Arts. Alex is a member of the editorial panel of the Book & Paper Gathering.