Family Archivist: Disaster Preparedness for You Photos and Heirlooms

Ask the Archivist: Disaster Management at Home 

How would your family archive fare in a fire, flood or other home disaster? Make a plan with these tips from Eric Pourchot, Institutional Advancement Director for the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).

Q. How do you assess disasters that could happen at home?
A. Look first at threats within your home, such as pipes that might leak, backup of drains, an old roof, etc. A house fire is probably the next most likely threat, which also includes the potential for water damage. At the Federal Emergency Management Agency website, you can get informed and plan for risks in your area. 

Q. What kinds of storage best protect items from fire?
In a controlled fire conducted by the Washington Conservation Guild several years ago, items stored in cardboard boxes suffered remarkably little fire damage, but did get wet from suppression efforts. Those in plastic cartons stayed dry, but often the plastic melted to a point where it adhered tightly to the contents. For home storage, archival, non-acidic cardboard boxes with plastic sheeting on top (to shield from leaking pipes, fire hoses, soot etc.) might be a good combination.

Q. Where should family archives be stored?
Attics and basements are the probably the worst places for valued items, but that’s often where we have space to store things not in daily use. The uncontrollable temperature, fluctuating humidity, pests and more can damage your collections. If basements and attics are your only option, the best advice I can offer again is prepare, prepare, prepare. Keep your collections labeled and in prioritized storage areas. It may be worthwhile to consult with a conservation professional about the best practices and products for your home use.

Q. Is it possible to rescue archives after a disaster?
Don’t endanger people by attempting to enter the home before it’s safe to do so. Your objects are important, but your life and health are far more important. Prepare in advance by properly storing your materials. Digitally archive your collection and keep a backup copy away from the house. Create an inventory for insurance or salvage purposes. Identify your records clearly so you can prioritize in the midst of a stressful situation, either during an emergency or afterward. [Never] rush to throw away things of value that may end up being salvageable. Some items can be frozen, for example, which can buy time to consider future options. Conservators have dedicated their lives to preserving our cultural heritage, and would be happy to assist you in doing the same with your family treasures.

Q. How do you find a good conservator?
Use the AIC’s online Find a Conservator database. It provides information about professional conservation services across the United States and abroad. Our online guide on how to choose a conservator covers what you should ask and what to expect.
Archival Action: Make a Disaster Plan
• archival storage boxes
• plastic sheeting (optional)
• fireproof safe (optional)
1. Inspect your house or apartment for areas of potential water leaks or backups. Use our resource list to identify the likely disaster hazards your home may face, including fire.

2. Move heirloom documents and photos away from vulnerable areas of your home. Identify the best storage area for these items, looking for an out-of-the-way location in a living area of your home.

3. Purchase archival storage boxes. Clearly label each box with its contents and number it according to the order you’d grab it in an evacuation. Consider storing the boxes under plastic sheeting. You also could keep small valuable items, such as jewelry, in a fireproof safe or safety deposit box.

4. Inventory valuable objects, including boxes of photos and documents. Identify them clearly (the location in your house, a visual description, any serial numbers) so they could be easily located by anyone in a recovery or salvage situation. Keep a copy of the inventory off-site.

5. Consult with your insurance agent about any special coverage needed for valuables.

6. Plan to digitize your most valuable or one-of-a-kind documents and pictures, and to photograph heirloom objects. Store copies of the images in multiple locations away from your home: Consider cloud storage, a friend’s house or a safety deposit box.

Resource Roundup

Use these archival resources for completing the projects described below:
From the September 2013 Family Tree Magazine