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Illinois Library Offers Digital Preservation Aid in Response to Tornado Devastation

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It was raining hard on Sunday morning November 17, 2013, as librarian Genna (pronounced “Gina”) Buhr anxiously watched the Weather Channel coverage of the storm system battering central Illinois. Buhr, Public Services Manager at Illinois’ Fondulac District Library, was visiting her parents in Utica, Illinois, about an hour north of Buhr’s home. Her two young children were with her. It had been a relaxed Sunday morning, with everyone lounging in their pajamas, but the increasing severity of the weather gradually changed the mood in the house. At 8:40 a.m., the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch.

Buhr’s parents were as anxious as she was; in 2004, a tornado hit their small valley community, resulting in the death of nine people and 100 damaged or destroyed homes. By mid-morning, Buhr and her parents changed their clothing, put on their shoes and prepared to take shelter in the small basement of the 100-year-old house if the emergency signal sounded. Buhr’s father had designated a secure spot in the old coal room and set aside jugs of emergency water, just in case. They were as ready as they could be.

Shortly before 11:00 a.m., a tornado did touch down in Illinois but it was far away from them, about 60 miles south. It was close to Buhr’s home.

Photo by the National Weather Service.
Photo by the National Weather Service.

The tornado formed southeast of East Peoria, not far from Fondulac District Library, and for almost an hour it moved steadily northeast, growing in strength as it traveled. Winds accelerated and peaked at 190 mph as the tornado ravaged the town of Washington, tossing cars, leveling houses and grinding everything in its path to rubble as it plowed on. Eventually, 46 miles away from where it touched down, it weakened and dissipated.

Photo by the National Weather Service.
Photo by the National Weather Service.
When Buhr felt it was safe to return home, she called some friends, family and co-workers to make sure they were alright. Then she put her kids in the car and headed out, passing debris, overturned vehicles, downed power lines and road diversions along the way.

When she got home she saw that her house was safe, with only a few small downed branches, so she left her kids in the care of her mother-in-law (her husband was in Florida) and went to check on the library.

The new Fondulac District Library building celebrated its grand opening to the public only two weeks before the tornado hit the area. The building was designed to be open, airy and filled with natural light. Three of the four exterior walls are almost completely glass, as is the three-story tower in the center of the building.

When Buhr arrived she was relieved to find her staff OK and the library barely damaged, so she set about almost immediately to mobilize her staff to help the tornado victims. Buhr had first-hand “aftermath” experience helping her family clean up after the 2004 tornado in Utica, and she was inspired by the supportive community spirit — how a lot of volunteers just showed up to help. Similarly, she and the library staff resolved to offer whatever resources it could, starting with creating a centralized information resource for the community.

That afternoon she and her staff compiled a web page packed with storm assistance information. They listed emergency phone numbers, phone numbers for utilities, phone numbers for claims divisions of insurance companies and contacts for charitable assistance. Buhr also managed the social media posts that appeared almost instantly after the storm. “In the immediate hours after a disaster, there’s a lot of miscommunication through normal channels,” said Buhr. “If people could contact the library, we’d do our best to get them the answers and information they needed using the resources we had available, including our knowledge of the community and our research skills.” The web page invited people to come to the library to use the electricity, the computers, charge their phones, use the wifi. The library offered the use of a video camcorder so people could document damage. Or people could come in just for comfort. The web page stated, “Visit us to escape the elements – cold, wind, rain – or the stress for a moment or two. Read a book, the newspaper, or a magazine. Play a game. Unwind.”

Heather Evans, a patron of Fondulac District Library, has a special interest in preserving digital photos. Evans contacted Buhr to note that, in a post-disaster cleanup, damaged photos are often overlooked and discarded; Evans suggested that the library might be able to help the community digitize their damaged photos so the electronic copies could be backed up and preserved. Evans even offered to set up her personal copy-stand camera and to digitize photos for those affected by the disaster. Buhr thought it was a terrific, novel idea. “The project fit the features and priorities of the library in a unique way,” said Buhr. “We weren’t collecting water bottles or supplies or anything physical for distribution. Other organizations had that covered. We decided to rely on the skills and talents of our staff and volunteers to offer something equally meaningful and important that maybe other organizations could not.”

Genna Buhr
Genna Buhr

While doing some research for the project, Buhr came across Operation Photo Rescue, a 501(c)(3) charity organization of volunteer photography enthusiasts that help rescue and restore damaged photos, particularly after natural disasters. Buhr consulted with OPR’s president Margie Hayes about OPR’s methods, about how Fondulac District Library’s project might work and to ask if OPR would be interested in collaborating. “We don’t have the Photoshop skills that Operation Photo Rescue’s volunteers do,” said Buhr. “We don’t have restoration capabilities here. But it would be a step in the right direction if we could at least get the digitization portion done.”

Within a few days, she had the commitment, the staff and the equipment for the project, which they dubbed Saving Memories. The next step was to get storage media on which members of the community could save their newly digitized photos. Buhr figured that some of the library’s vendors might have flash drives and thumb drives to spare, so she emailed them, explained the Saving Memories project and asked for donations of flash/USB drives. The response was overwhelming. Within days, the Fondulac District Library received more than 2,500 flash/USB drives. The library was ready. Once people had their scans in hand, all that remained to do was backup and care for their digital photos in accordance with the Library of Congress guidelines.

Less than two weeks after the tornado hit, Fondulac District Library set up Evans’ copy-stand camera scanning station and held its first Saving Memories session. To the staff’s disappointment, no one came.

“I did feel it was going to be a little early after the disaster, but it didn’t hurt to try it,” said Buhr. “It’s understandable though. It was a little too soon. People were still being reunited with their items, things that the storm blew away. They were still meeting basic needs, such as housing and transportation.” In fact, in the aftermath of the tornado around central Illinois, more than 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, there were 125 injuries and three deaths. So Buhr and her staff understood that the community had more important priorities than scanning photos. The trauma was still fresh and people had bigger concerns. Even Operation Photo Rescue doesn’t go into an affected community right after a disaster. They let peoples’ lives settle down a bit first.

Buhr is not frustrated or deterred. She has more sessions scheduled. She is coordinating with Operation Photo Rescue to hold a large copy run — basically a rescue session — at Washington District Library on February 21 and 22. They will offer further digitization services the following weekend, February 28 and March 1, at Fondulac District Library.

Buhr and her staff are looking beyond Saving Memories’ original goal of helping people salvage and digitize their photos. “We’re regrouping and thinking logistically — and bigger — about how this service can best benefit the community,” she said.

Fondulac District Library hopes to eventually get its own copy-stand camera setup so it can continue to offer a sophisticated photo digitization service. But that raises staffing issues. A qualified staff person -– one trained in photography and the equipment — has to run it, sessions have to be scheduled and someone has to maintain the equipment. Such services need to be thought through carefully. Still, it seems like a logical step in the library’s ongoing service to its community.

“We offer public computers, scanners and copiers,” said Buhr. “Why not also offer the community the use of a copy stand camera scanner?”

Buhr also plans to expand the scope of the project. Fondulac District Library may eventually use the equipment to scan historic photos from the library’s collections. “Part of the attention drawn by the launching of our new library is to our local history collection,” said Buhr. In the old library building, the collection was buried in the basement and not easily accessible. In the new library, the collection is prominently displayed and accessible in the Local History room. Buhr wants to digitize and promote the collection more aggressively.

The actions of Buhr and the staff of Fondulac District Library demonstrate that libraries can help their communities in unexpected ways, including digital preservation and personal digital archiving. Buhr said, “The project is a good match for Fondulac District Library in that –- in response to a disaster –- the project uses the resources and the archival and preservation spirit that libraries have. The project really takes advantage of the broad abilities of the library and the skills of librarians in a unique way. The mission of our Saving Memories project captures the essence of some of the missions of libraries in general — preservation, information and service to the community.”

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