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Three women and one man stand in front of a table of FEMA materials.
Liz Peirce, Lily Tyndall, Jon Sweitzer-Lamme, and Katherine Kelly stand proudly behind an example demonstration table during FEMA training in Vermont. August 2023.

The Conservation Division Travels to Vermont

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The following is a guest post by Objects Conservator Liz Peirce.

From August 14th through 30th, four Library of Congress Conservation Division staff deployed to Vermont to aid in the FEMA response to the July flooding. Why send us, specifically, to the Green Mountain State? While we aren’t volunteers or part of FEMA, one of its subdivisions – the Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF) – partners with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI) to provide guidance on salvaging and preserving wet artifacts recovered from disaster areas. The program is called Save Your Family Treasures (SYFT) and aims to provide practical and accessible information to victims in disaster areas to empower them to save some of their treasured pieces.

Left: A boarded up business door with high mud lines. Right: a sign and pictures demonstrating the height of the floodwaters.
Left: A boarded-up business shows the devastation from flooding, demonstrated by the mud stains on the door. Right: Vermonters take the events in stride, commemorating the floodwaters with a photo and memoriam. Photos: Lily Tyndall, Liz Peirce, August 2023.
Library SMEs sort through copies of informational handouts.
Library Subject Matter Experts sort handouts to deploy to demonstration tents across the state of Vermont. August, 2023.]

SYFT provides live demonstrations of salvage techniques along with handouts and other information for to take home. The demonstrations are given by teams of three – generally two FEMA reservists who are volunteers that are deployed to disaster areas – and one Subject Matter Expert (SME) which is generally a preservation specialist or conservator. The SMEs help with training the reservists, provide guidance on object handling and salvage, and act as team leads.

As you can imagine, for large disasters you would need a similarly large group to be available to provide information to those affected. Because of that need, HENTF and SCRI rely on their colleagues in government institutions like the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the National Parks Service, and the Library of Congress to send staff to help. This might sound like a strange fit – why would the Library send staff to a flooded area? What kind of knowledge could we bring to the table?

Like many institutions, especially ones housed in historic buildings, the Library of Congress is no stranger to water events. However, to combat water damage, the Conservation Division has a robust Preservation Emergency Response Team that responds internally to collections emergencies. When events like water leaks in the stacks happen, we respond to evaluate, move, and dry damaged materials. Our experience handling smaller scale emergencies has helped give each of us background knowledge on how to work with wet material. We each also have different professional knowledge bases – Katherine Kelly is a book conservator, Liz Peirce an objects conservator, Jon Sweitzer-Lamme a preservation education librarian, and Lily Tyndall a general collections conservation technician. Our group brought a knowledge that covered a wide range of materials, including books and paper; ceramics, stone, glass, and organic material; and mold mitigation and prevention. When the call for volunteer SMEs went out, the Library answered.

Male and female SMEs stand at the front of a classroom providing a presentation to students at tables.
SMEs Lily Tyndall and Jon Sweitzer-Lamme provide a presentation on mold mitigation and prevention to the FEMA-HENTF staff to prepare for deployment. August, 2023.

Once we were given the go ahead, we were sent to Burlington for the first leg of the response. This involved setting up and conducting training of wet salvage, preparing Pelican cases with demo material and handouts for staffed tables, and familiarizing ourselves with the SYFT process and teams. While we have more experience with wet books and paper, we received additional training and guidance from the SYFT coordinators on a wide range of other materials. We each also received a binder with information to refer back to once we were in the field.

The demonstration tables were generally set up in two sections: one with handouts on a variety of subjects, and a section with demonstration materials and the three-bath setup. Because the aim of the training is to provide information and techniques to people who have recently been impacted by natural disasters, the emphasis for materials are things that can be readily found in hardware, dollar, or grocery stores.

A female SME gestures to demonstration materials for a resident holding a child, visiting the FEMA tent.
“It was truly an honor to be able to bring the Library’s expertise to the state of Vermont. We were able to see the terrible devastation of the flooded-out downtowns and washed away homes and to hear firsthand the stories of what was lost and what was saved. I hope that some of our experience with the materials and how to recover them was helpful and that it gave Vermonters some tools to recover from the July 2023 floods,” recalls Katherine Kelly. August, 2023.
Left: a gloved hand demonstrates brushing substrate off photographs. Right: female SME demonstrates handling of photographs during salvage.
SMEs demonstrate the three-bath system. “The sense of community and strength among impacted Vermonters was incredible to see. I’m so grateful that we were able to help share our knowledge to help empower people to salvage their possessions,” Liz Peirce reflects on her time in Vermont. August, 2023.

The three-bath system is a series of three aluminum roasting trays which have been filled approximately ¼- ½ full with distilled water. The aim of having a three-bath system is to progressively remove and decontaminate the object – the first bath removes most of the debris, the second rinses whatever has lingered on the surface, and after the third the piece should be essentially clean and ready to dry. After discussing what to look for when assessing if an item could be rinsed, if the piece was stable enough, it was placed on a piece of plastic window screening, and gently lowered into the water of the first bath. If needed and safe, the surface could be brushed with a soft brush to remove debris. It was then lifted on the screen allowing the excess water to rinse off before being transferred to the second bath. The process was repeated before the third bath, and then the piece was laid out to dry. Several different materials were used for drying depending on the piece – a sweater dryer, clothes line and clothespins, or chairs padded with pool noodles or insulation to soften their edges.  We also provided guidance on how to buy more time to salvage the items, advising on what could be placed in a freezer and how. FAIC and NCPTT have recorded a series of videos describing this technique.

Two tables at the front of a training room hold demonstration materials for salvage techniques.
A fully set-up demonstration table at the FEMA training center. Right to left: informational handouts, example items to salvage, a three-bath system and accompanying materials like a screen and paper towels, and a drying rack. August, 2023.

Once training was completed and our bags were packed, we were split into teams to be deployed across the state, changing locations every few days or so depending on location needs and community events. We were sent to two different types of locations: Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) and State or County Fairs. The DRCs are set up by FEMA in centralized locations near the hardest impacted areas. Survivors could visit a DRC to submit claims, get registered, and learn more about other services that are available to them. While foot traffic may not always have been high in these locations, every person who visited was someone who had been directly impacted by the disaster. We also had booths set up at State and County Fairs. These locations had a lot of visitor engagement, but the majority of the people we spoke with or did demonstrations for were not directly impacted by the recent flooding. While the information may not have directly reached survivors in these contexts, getting information out to anyone who will listen is helpful, especially in water disasters where quick response is needed to salvage material. We hope that those we spoke with will be able to remember the resources that are available to them should they be impacted in the future.

Female SME talks to a child visiting the FEMA tent, directing her on photo salvaging techniques.
“I enjoyed meeting each Vermonter that came to our table; it was especially fulfilling to interact with kids who were very intrigued by the physical salvage work and the types of items we could salvage,” Lily Tyndall says of her Vermont experience. August, 2023.

While the deployment was non-stop, with long hours, deeply moving stories, and extensive travel, we were given two days off to experience the wonderful culture and community of Vermont. We were able to visit the Shelbourne Museum, walk through Church Street in Burlington, go for a hike, and, of course, no trip to Vermont would be complete without touring the Ben & Jerry’s factory.

Male and female SMEs work to set up a drying line at a FEMA demonstration tent.
“Not only was working with the disaster survivors and other Vermonters rewarding, but I also left with new knowledge of how to help those without the Library’s resources recover their precious items,” Jon Sweitzer-Lamme reflects on his Vermont experience. August, 2023.

Overall, we were deeply grateful for the time we were able to spend with impacted members of the community in Vermont and of the knowledge and skills we obtained while deployed.

 

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Comments

  1. An amazing experience!

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