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Hurricane Maria and Its Lessons on Preservation

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On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in the most catastrophic storm of island’s history since the Okeechobee Hurricane in 1928. The Category 4 storm entered through Yabucoa at 6:15 a.m., leaving behind massive destruction. Most of the island’s population was left without power, physical structures collapsed, and the people of Puerto Rico were devastated. Last week marked the first year anniversary of the storm and there is still so much work to do for the island, like the work that Elena González is doing for the Department of Justice of Puerto Rico.

We met Elena at this year’s American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Conference in Baltimore in July. Elena González is the director of the law library at the Department of Justice of Puerto Rico. At the conference, she presented to our colleagues in a discussion den about the effects the storm had on the library. She recalls the destruction after the Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Caribbean, and the methods she used in the time between storms to try to protect the collections in every way possible. When she returned to the library after Hurricane Maria, all she saw was an unworkable library full of what seemed to be destroyed collections of books and law materials.

Law Library at the Department of Justice in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria [Photo by Elena González]
Even though the space was unbearable, she was obliged to store the wet books in the destroyed library, which accumulated mold and debris, worsening the material’s physical condition. The library’s staff took on the task of cleaning the books one by one, and their efforts saved the entire collection. However, the storms completely wrecked the physical structure of the library and the building became uninhabitable, so much that they had to build a brand new library in another space. When asked about the library’s functionality in the past year, she mentioned that the library was still able to provide services for the Justice Department, as well as for the lawyers and law students in Puerto Rico when requested. She also said that because of the current times and all the technology available to her, she has been able to do her job with a smartphone and an tablet, since she still hasn’t been able to get a computer or even furniture for the new space. It’s people like Elena who have effectively been working to assist in the recovery of the island in any way possible, even a year after the storms made landfall. That is also true for the over 3.3 million people still on the island, working every day to get back on their feet and for the over 5 million Puerto Ricans living in the mainland and assisting the recovery effort.

Elena’s story made me think about our emergency preparedness plans for the collections here at the Law Library of Congress and how we can physically protect thousands of years of history for generations to come from any kind of disaster. The Law Library has over 3 million items in the collection and the Library of Congress is prepared to protect all the collections in the case of emergency, and they also follow extensive guidelines for prevention. The limits of storage space on Capitol Hill require the collections to be housed in different locations in the Washington metro area. This means we won’t lose the entire collection if there is a disaster here. The Library has standards for best practices for the preservation of the collections, including ours here at the Law Library.  In addition, the Library has a Conservation Division that ensures the preservation of the Library’s paper-based special collections — more than 100 million rare books, works on paper, and photographic materials. Three dozen conservators and other preservation specialists undertake condition surveys, rehousing projects, basic stabilization, full treatments, conservation research, and participate in the management of collections storage, collection emergencies, exhibitions, loans, and digitization.

Here at the Library of Congress, we make the best efforts to keep our 164 million collection items safe from disaster. If you are faced with wet books in your collection, the Library provides an online guide on how to handle damaged materials. The guide also contains information on preservation, conservation, and digitization.

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