Tips for Writing a Disaster Plan

Writing a disaster plan for your institution can seem like an onerous task, but it doesn’t have to be! Here are a few tips to help write a disaster plan.

1. Don’t do it alone

Choose a variety of people within your organization to be a part of the writing process. Include individuals from different departments, with different backgrounds and different levels of experience. Meet regularly to create the best plan possible. Share drafts with staff members to see if there is anything you have missed and work through mock-disaster scenarios to see if the plan you create works in practice. Also, think about who will review and update the plan in the future and who will approve these changes. Your staff will feel more connected with and responsible for the disaster plan if they are involved in the writing and testing process.

2. Who are you going to call?

Create a list of staff to call during a disaster. Include alternate phone numbers to reach people. Every staff member should have a role assigned in the disaster plan, such as Response Lead and Collections Lead, and clearly identified responsibilities and tasks for each role. Include alternate staff for each position in case staff members are not available to assist.

3. Map it!

Include a floor plan within your disaster plan. Identify the location of your vital records, exits, water shut offs, breaker boxes, fire extinguishers, sprinklers, first aid kits, shelving units, disaster recovery supplies and any other supplies or pieces of equipment you think would be helpful. A map may help you evacuate records or assist first responders unfamiliar with your institution.


Photo credit: Mike Carney

4. Practice makes perfect

Include a section describing how you will train staff on using your disaster plan. How will you ensure that all staff have read the plan (consider having a sheet that all staff sign when they have read the plan)? What type of training will you offer? How often will this training occur? ASA recommends that all staff read through the plan at least once a year and to annually exercise a mock-disaster scenario to practice the plan.

5. Supplies

Create a list of all supplies you have onsite that can be helpful during and recovering from a disaster. This may include archival supplies, rehousing supplies and cleaning supplies, among others. Identify the location of all of the supplies in your plan so staff can find them quickly. Include the contact information for companies that offer equipment and supplies that you need but do not have onsite, such as freezer trucks, wet-dry vacuums and blotting paper. It is important to organize your supplies and contacts before a disaster for ease of access and use.

We hope that these tips help you write your institution’s disaster plan!

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Tough Call: When to Call a Conservator

Conservation services are offered by trained professionals in the field of conservation of historic works, artistic works, and cultural property. Conservators specialize in one of three main branches: paper, paintings, and artifacts. Many institutions have conservators on staff, though private conservators and contractors can also be contacted to complete treatments and offer recommendations.

If you do not have a conservator on staff, you may be wondering when you would need to contact one for assistance.


Photo credit: IAEA Imagebank

Questions to ask before contacting a conservator:

  • Are there any trained staff members onsite that can assist?
  • Conservators can be costly. Is funding available within the budget to hire a conservator?
  • Does the item require treatment immediately to remain chemically and physically stable?
  • Does the collection contain a variety of mixed media (textiles, paintings, wood artifacts, and textual records)?

When should you contact a conservator?

  • If your collection is threatened by an environmental disaster
  • If items have been vandalized
  • If items are going on exhibit or display
  • If items of high priority require treatment for stabilization (historical value, informational value, legal value, evidential value, monetary value, intrinsic value)
  • If items require treatment prior to going on loan
  • If there is a suspected pest outbreak in the collection
  • If you are redesigning your archives’ collection space and require advice on storing items with unique housing requirements

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Fire can cause significant damage to an archival institution. Fire damage to archival records can come in many different forms, such has burnt records, smoke and soot damaged records, wet records caused by fire suppression efforts, heat affected records (brittleness) or a combination of some or all of the above. This blog post is specifically about soot.

What is soot? Soot is a black, chalky material made mostly of carbon particles which is produced after an incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons. Coal and wool are examples of material that produce soot during the incomplete combustion process. Soot is abrasive and sticky. It is very difficult to remove all soot during clean up due to its sticky nature. It is extremely important to ensure you have clean hands and gloves while handling soot damaged records or while working in soot affected areas as you can very easily transfer soot from your hands/gloves to archival records. These particulates can soil and chemically damage archival records. It is best to remove soot as soon as possible.

Burnt book

Photo credit: Sarah Wynne

Do not remove soot from wet records as you could smudge the soot and push it further into the paper fibers. Safety dry your records before removing any soot. You may wish to vacuum freeze dry your records if you do not have time to dry them right away. This method of drying may also lift the soot to the surface of the record, which will help in removing the soot.

Carefully brush large pieces of soot off the paper with a boar bristle brush or with the nozzle of a HEPA vacuum. Do not use a soft bristle brush or nozzle as you may rub the soot into the paper fibers. To remove small soot particles, dab an Absorene dirt eraser over the affected material. Replace the eraser when it becomes soiled.

This is a great video from Heritage Preservation about removing soot from objects:

Remember: Always consult a conservator before cleaning any archival material affected by soot.

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The Right Way to Rehouse

Before beginning a rehousing project, it is important to determine what envelopes should be chosen for each item requiring rehousing.

When should polyester film encapsulation be used? Encapsulating is great for rehousing photographs and documents with many tears along the edges as it prevents direct handling of the record, it reduces the opportunity for further tearing. It is also water resistant, strong, flexible, smooth (it will not cause abrasions), and it is chemically and physically stable. There are, however, a few disadvantages to using polyester film encapsulation: it has static cling, it is relatively expensive, and it acts as a closed chamber containing off-gases.

Do not encapsulate:

  1. Blueprints, they off-gas ammonia
  2. Cellulose Nitrate Negatives, they off-gas nitrous oxide and nitrogen dioxide
  3. Cellulose Acetate Negatives, they off-gas acetic acid
  4. Fine Art on Paper with Friable Media (pastels, charcoal, etc.), the static cling can remove loose media

2013-C3, Blueprint. Photo credit: Tom Hart

If using paper envelopes or folders, when should unbuffered or buffered be used? Never used buffered envelopes or folders to rehouse blueprints or cyanotypes because the blue colour (Prussian blue) will begin to turn pink; the colour is dependent on the pH level.

Always contact a conservator prior to rehousing fine art on paper as certain colours may be affected by buffered material.

Use Buffered Material for:

  • Cellulose nitrate negatives
  • Cellulose acetate negatives
  • Yellowed documents
  • Documents with iron gall ink
  • Documents with adhesive or glue residue
  • Maps without blue media

Use Unbuffered Material for:

  • Blueprints
  • Cyanotypes
  • Vellum or parchment
  • Coloured photographs
  • Black and white photographs
  • Polyester negatives
  • Maps with blue media

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Fire Extinguishers: Demystified

Types of Fires and Fire Extinguishers

There are four main types of fire:

  1. Class A: Ordinary Combustibles, such as wood, paper, and cloth
  2. Class B: Flammable Liquids and Gases, such as oil, gasoline, propane, and paints
  3. Class C: Live Electricity, includes electrical equipment
  4. Class D: Combustible Metals and Metal Alloys, such as magnesium, titanium, sodium and potassium (this type of not very common)

Every extinguisher is labelled to indicate which types of fires the extinguisher is effective against, using the fire type classification system. For example, a fire extinguisher labelled ABC is effective against class A, B and C fires. There may also be numbers in front of the class designations. These numbers indicate the comparative effectiveness of the extinguisher to combat the specified type of fire. Higher numbers indicate higher levels of effectiveness. For example, a fire extinguisher labelled 1-A:10-B:C is less effective at combatting class A fires than a fire extinguisher labelled 2-A:10-B:C. Class C does not have a number classification.

Conduct a risk assessment to identify your fire hazards and ensure you purchase fire extinguishers that are effective against potential fires at your archives, be it class A, B, C or D or a combination of fire types.

Extinguishing Agents

There are different extinguishing agents for each class of fires:

  1. Water extinguishers: Class A fires only. Never use water on class B, C or D fires. Water may cause damage to archival records and electronics.
  2. Dry chemical extinguishers (powder with pressurized nitrogen): Combination of class A, B, and C fires (check label of extinguisher). The residue may cause damage to archival records and electronics.
  3. Chemical foam (aqueous film forming foam): Class A and B fires only. The residue may cause damage to archival records and electronics.
  4. Compressed gas extinguishers (pressurized CO2 or halon): Class B and C fires only. This does not leave a harmful residue, but is not effective on class A fires.

It is extremely important to know the type of fire extinguisher you are using and what type of fire you are dealing with. Using the wrong extinguishing agent may feed the fire instead of suppressing it. If you do not know the type of fire, the type of extinguisher or how to use it, evacuate the building safely and call the fire department.

It is important to research the effects of these extinguishing agents on the media types and equipment found in your facility. Some of ASA’s institutional members have installed CleanguardTM Clean Agent Extinguishers at their facilities**. CleanguardTM uses DuPontTM FE-36TM as the extinguishing agent. The producers claim it is electrically nonconductive, low in toxicity, and environmentally friendly, in addition to being an effective fire suppressor. Conduct research on all types of extinguishing agents and their effects on your collection and equipment prior to purchasing any products.

** The ASA does not endorse the use of any particular brand of fire extinguisher.

Where to House Fire Extinguishers

It is recommended to house fire extinguishers near potential hazards identified in your risk assessment. They should be housed visibly near an exit. It is recommended to have your back to an exit while extinguishing fires in order to have a clear escape route. For example, a staff kitchen is usually identified as a fire risk in a risk assessment. If possible, store the fire extinguisher on the wall adjacent to the door to the kitchen.


Fire extinguisher training is extremely important. Do not attempt to operate a fire extinguisher without the proper training. Consider offering training to your staff as part of your disaster preparedness training. This may be offered through your Occupational Health and Safety Department or your local Fire Department.

Here is an acronym to help you remember how to use an extinguisher once you have received training:

Pull the fire extinguisher’s safety pin.

Aim at the source or base of the flames. It is recommended to stand at least 6 feet away from the flames; however, the fire extinguisher should indicate how far away you should stand from the flame.

Squeeze the handle or trigger.

Sweep the source or the base of the flames until the extinguisher is empty.

After Using a Fire Extinguisher

If you use a fire extinguisher, refill or replace it immediately. Extinguishers with metal valves can be refilled and extinguishers with plastic valves cannot be refilled and should be discarded and replaced.

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Could it be Cellulose Nitrate?

When completing a collection survey, you may come across negatives and be uncertain of whether or not they should be frozen. There are many ways to determine what the base of the negatives could be, including various chemical tests and burning tests. Purchasing chemicals can be expensive, and dangerous to house and dispose of. While burning tests work, they require sacrificing a piece of the negative and lighting a fire.

A safe, reusable, environmentally friendly, and inexpensive method of analyzing negatives is to look at one between two linear polarizers. Linear polarizers are a type of grey, transparent film used in photography as a camera filter. When purchasing linear polarizer film, it is important not to order circular polarizer film as it will not perform the same way.

How to use it:

  1. Cut two pieces of film from a sheet.
  2. Create a frame for both pieces using acid-free mat board. This will help protect the film from abrasions and fingerprints.
  3. Sandwich the negative between the two pieces of matted film and hold up to natural light.
  4. Rotate one piece of matted film.

What to look for: When the one of the matted film pieces is rotated you will see one of two things: The negative and film will both appear to darken, or colours will be seen, called birefringence.

Birefringence. Photo credit: Dave See

Birefringence. Photo credit: Dave See

Birefringence will only be encountered when looking at a polyester negative. If you see the film darken, the negative is either nitrate or acetate. Polyester negatives are relatively stable and do not need to be frozen. Cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate negatives should be frozen as they off-gas nitrous oxide and nitrogen dioxide or acetic acid, and they rapidly degrade. Cellulose nitrate is also a fire hazard because it can auto-ignite, and the fire cannot be put out.

To further identify between cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate, you can consult the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s guide to visually identifying negatives:

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What to do in a Zombie Attack**

Your disaster plan includes instructions on how to deal with different disasters, such as fires, floods, and theft, among others. Few disaster plans cover what should be done in the event of a zombie attack. Zombies are undead creatures that eat human flesh. The virus is passed on through a bite or scratch from an infected individual. The Lead Team believes it is important to prepare for all types of disasters, so here are a few tips on handling a zombie attack:

  1. Remain calm.
  2. Call your local authorities, if time permits. Note that if this is a wide spread epidemic, the authorities may not respond to your call.
  3. Barricade all staff and visitors in a secure space, such as your vault.
  4. Ensure all staff and visitors in the secure space have not been infected.
  5. Remain quiet.
  6. Do not use archival records or artefacts to defend yourself against zombies, if possible.
  7. Consider keeping blunt instruments in your disaster kit to protect your staff and visitors from a zombie attack.
  8. Include self-defence training as part of your institutional disaster training.
Photo credit: Stephen Dann

Photo credit: Stephen Dann

Disaster preparedness is key to protecting staff, researchers and our collections from these types of attacks!

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**This post is all in good fun. Happy Halloween!

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Good Work by the Flood Advisory Programme’s Lead Team

South Peace Regional Archives gratefully acknowledges the benefit received from the ASA Flood Advisory Programme, through Lead Archivist Amanda Oliver and Lead Conservator Emily Turgeon-Brunet.

SPRA is located in the Grande Prairie Museum, which sits on the banks of Bear Creek, a potential flood plain. Although the creek has never overflowed in our time, we have suffered a flood from above, caused by our flat roof.

We knew that our Disaster Preparedness Plan needed to be revised and more supplies purchased. We had a Disaster Response Kit of sorts, but it was basically a list of all the materials we would need in case of an emergency, and where they were stored.

Amanda and Emily’s report through the Flood Advisory Programme makes it so easy to address our weaknesses.  They laid out an easy to follow plan and gave us the conservation materials needed to do it correctly. This included a bin containing the things we were missing, such as sock barriers, Hollytex sheets, protective coveralls, and hard hats. It is very comforting to have all the supplies in one bin, which is now stored in our isolation room right off the receiving bay. Archives staff were also very excited about winning the fume hood used for the Flood Advisory Programme! Until now, when we needed to use toxic chemicals to clean film or when we wanted to remove mould from paper records, we have had to wait for a quiet, warm day in summer so we can work on them in the ventilated outdoors. This fume hood will allow us to work safely with cleaners and mouldy records as required. For the moment, it resides on a back table in the Archives Processing Room, but we are looking forward to the day when it is up and running.

Thank You, Archives Society of Alberta, for your practical support of archives across Alberta.

Sincere Regards,

Mary Nutting, Executive Director

South Peace Regional Archives

And the Oscar Goes to… (Behind the Scenes of our How-to Videos)

When the Lead Team was researching types of resources to share on our website, we realized fairly quickly a lack of video resources about disaster recovery available online. Although there are some great videos out there, the videos were hard to find and the videos themselves were quite long. The available video resources were not appropriate if an archivist needed salvage information quickly. We decided it would be beneficial to create how-to videos for the ASA website that were concise and easy to find.

Emily Turgeon-Brunet preparing to film a video about mould removal.

Emily Turgeon-Brunet preparing to film a video about mould removal.

Throughout the fall of 2014, the Lead Team decided on six topics for the videos and wrote scripts for these topics. We filmed three of the videos ourselves during the winter of 2015. Although the content of the videos was strong, we felt the poor production value distracted from the content. In the spring of 2015, the Lead Team interviewed four local video production companies and hired Back Road Productions ( to help us create our videos. Dylan Howard worked closely with us to ensure that our content was presented in an interesting and visually appealing way. He was very patient with us and his attention to detail was much appreciated.

Amanda Oliver preparing to film the video about packing wet records.

Amanda Oliver preparing to film the video about packing wet records.

We had some difficulty securing an appropriate filming location for the required time period. Fortunately, the Edmonton Public Schools Archives and Museum ( was able to accommodate us. The archives and museum is located within the oldest standing brick school in Alberta, which was designated as a Provincial Historic Resource in 1976. It is a beautiful building and was a stunning and appropriate backdrop for our videos. Thank you to the Edmonton Public Schools Archives and Museum staff for your time, space and patience!

We spent a lot of time selecting and placing props in the background of our videos, especially deciding on what to write on the chalkboard. Do you know what the chemical equation on the chalkboard is for? Let us know in the comments!


Emily Turgeon-Brunet filming a close up shot.

We filmed the videos over three days in June 2015. Topics included: handling wet records, packing wet records, drying wet records, flattening and humidifying, mould removal and encapsulation. The filming process was quite long and stressful; however, the team at Back Road Productions was very patient and made us feel comfortable throughout the filming process. They did an excellent job transforming the footage into the videos available on our website!

Amanda Oliver wrapping bound material in wax paper for the packing wet records video.

Amanda Oliver wrapping bound material in wax paper for the packing wet records video.

The videos are available on our website: Let us know what you think of the videos in the comments! Please be kind to us while viewing the videos – remember that we are not actors, but an archivist and a conservator! We were definitely out of our element being on camera; however, we hope the finished product will benefit the greater documentary heritage community.

Thank you again to Back Road Productions and the Edmonton Public Schools Archives and Museums for helping us create these resources.

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Introducing our New Video Resources!

For Archives Week 2015, the Lead Team has created six video resources for the Flood Advisory Programme’s webpage. These videos are intended to be concise resources which demonstrate basic salvage techniques to help archivists during an emergency.

Handling Wet Paper

Watch this video to learn how to handle wet paper without tearing it.

Packing Wet Records

Watch this video to learn how to pack wet records.

Drying Wet Records

Watch this video to learn a variety of ways to dry wet paper.

Humidifying and Flattening Paper Records  

Watch this video to learn two techniques to humidify and flatten records.

Mould Removal

Watch this video to learn how to safely remove mould.


Watch this video to learn how to encapsulate records using Mylar.

The videos were filmed on location at the Edmonton Public Schools Archives and Museum. Funding for the videos was provided by Alberta Culture and Tourism. We hope you find these resources helpful. Happy Archives Week!

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