Responding Rapidly: Martin on the BLPAC Disaster Training Day

A guest blog by Martin on a very important training session …

Wet books for salvage training

Some we got wet earlier … wet books for salvage training

Members of the disaster team (and possibly folks beyond) will be interested in a brief account of my visit to the British Library’s Preservation Advisory Centre last Wednesday. I turned up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to attend Emma Dadson’s day-long course on ‘Disaster Response and Salvage Training’.

Was it worth getting up at a quarter past five on a cloudy morning, dashing my breakfast down and racing to Halifax for the six o’clock train to London?

It was. It was a cracking course that covered everything and more in a little bit more than six hours.

Emma has a wealth of experience – and a crate-load of insider knowledge. Which is another way of saying that she knows where the bodies are buried. And doesn’t she just. We sat shocked and appalled, glued by cold sweat to our seats as we viewed shattering images of pan-seared archives and lemonade-coloured libraries.

What was at the heart of Emma’s message? There were three hearts, I’d say: speed, resilience and confidence.

You have to act quickly – even if this means by-passing the normal channels.

You have to think ahead – what can go wrong, WILL go wrong. (Plan for that re-opening day; don’t expect to wing it).

You have to act with confidence – know what you’re doing and when you should be doing it.

Some organisations (sotto voce) don’t even have disaster plans. So, as Emma rightly pointed out, how can they deal with disasters successfully? The short answer to that question, of course, is they can’t. Though she also made another point, which again made a big impression upon me: ‘Remember that no plan [even a good plan] is a magic wand.’

A) You’ve still got to read it.

B) You’ve still got to understand it.

C) And you’re still going to get your clothes dirty. (Though having a plan does make the clean-up easier).

One of Emma’s worst horror stories concerned a cock-up between a library and its insurers. The scenario was this: Friday afternoon, thousands of wet books. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Admin contacted finance. Finance contacted the insurers. 72 hours hours passed. No decision was made – time enough for General Mould to move his divisions in. Result: one extremely expensive and time-consuming outcome.

If only someone, ANYONE, had sorted the situation out quicker.

During the afternoon, yours truly and the other folks rolled up our sleeves and got down to the practical business of salvaging ‘real’ books, cds, videos and photographs. This, on reflection, was probably the most useful part of the entire course. With Emma and her colleagues to hand, we were able to ask all sorts of questions – like, how do I deal with microfiche? ‘Attach it with rust-proof clips to a washing line.’ Should glass slides be frozen? ‘No!’ Should I prioritise photographs? ‘In general, yes.’ And, how should I treat modern books? ‘Air-dry if partly wet. Freeze, for later treatment, if sodden.’

My only gripe is that I was too tired at the end of the course to make good use of my complementary ticket to the library’s exhibition, Writing Britain!

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