Not sure if this article has appeared here yet or not, but of interest:

History is being flooded, too:
Slave records, jazz archives, Jefferson Davis' mansion:
Hurricane Katrina has put them all in peril.

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By Rebecca Traister 

Sept. 10, 2005

On Thursday Sept. 8, Shelly Henley Kelly, the immediate
past president of the Society of Southwest Archivists
composed a letter to the editors of major newspapers.

"Imagine that Washington D.C. is struck by a CAT 5
hurricane and the National Archives has been damaged
and/or flooded," Kelly, an archivist at the University
of Houston-Clear Lake, wrote. "Archivists and
conservators are trained to have a disaster
response/disaster recovery plan. They will get in and
begin the massive effort to reclaim the damaged
documents... But what happens when the archivist is
prevented from returning to the repository? How long
can the many important documents, photographs, sound
recordings documenting our nation's history and culture
sit alone, un-airconditioned, possibly wet, before they
rot beyond any hope for recovery?"

This, Kelly argued in her letter, is precisely what has
been happening for nearly two weeks in New Orleans'
cultural and historical repositories. "More than ten
days after what will probably become the greatest
natural disaster in the United States... archivists
have NOT BEEN ALLOWED into their collections -- not for
a day, an afternoon, even an hour," read the letter. If
these collections are ignored, wrote Kelly, "they will
soon be unrecoverable... New Orleans, a city so rich in
history, may soon become a city with no history."

It's a terrifying prospect, and one that grows more
real every day. As the human costs of Hurricane Katrina
mount, so too do the possible historical, cultural, and
intellectual losses. Some attention has been paid to
the conditions at the New Orleans Art Museum, the
region's zoos and aquariums, its hobbled architectural
landscape. But what about New Orleans' delicate and
vital documentary history, the papers and books that
tell us how the country was built, and who its citizens
were: who they married, to whom they were born, and in
many cases, to whom they were sold.

Papers -- brittle, ancient, susceptible to mold, mildew
and complete disintegration -- have been sitting in the
toxic fug of flood-ravaged New Orleans for two weeks.
For many curators, initial fears that water might enter
through blown-out windows gave way to panic about the
stew that was surely drowning basement archives, which
in turn gave way to anxiety about dangerously muggy
conditions. For two weeks archivists and
preservationists have batted messages back and forth
online -- trading in rumor and satellite photos to try
to guess which repositories got flooded and which
stayed dry. This week, while good news emerged about
imperiled collections that escaped flooding, it also
became clear that the risks to the miles of paper that
provide a one-of-a-kind story of the United States are
far from over.

Their collections abandoned and vulnerable to looting
and humidity and fire, preservationists are worried --
and we should be too -- that among the many casualties
of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath will be portions
of one of the nation's richest histories.

"There's a little bit of desperation coming out," said
Brenda Gunn, current president of the Society of
Southwest Archivists, which set up a message board to
track information about the condition of the region's
archives. "No one's getting in; assessments aren't
being made; the clock is ticking for these collections
and records." Of course, said Gunn, "the first priority
is rescuing people and saving lives. But we also need
to address some of the important cultural issues." Gunn
wrote a letter to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux
Blanco on Thursday Sept 8, "appealing ... for
assistance in allowing representatives from New Orleans
archival institutions back into the city." Access and
assessment, Gunn pleaded with the governor, "is the
only way to avoid a cultural catastrophe."

Desperate archivists. Desperate curators and librarians
and preservationists, some of whom told me, off the
record, that they would be willing to arm themselves to
get back into the city to try to save their
collections. It may sound funny, but it's far from
amusing. "Quite honestly I'd probably faint dead away
if even a single 'leader' thought for one second that
there are archival repositories that need immediate
disaster recovery efforts," wrote Shelly Kelly in an e-
mail, noting that she wouldn't blame them, given the
ongoing search and rescue missions. But she said, if
any civilians are being allowed into the city to view
their places of business, "then we must start
immediately with the ones that house the IRREPLACEABLE
historical and cultural heritage."

New Orleans is home to a vast collection of archival
material. Major repositories include the Special
Collections departments at Tulane University and the
University of New Orleans, the Notarial Archives, Jazz
archives, The Historic New Orleans Collection, the city
records stored in the basement of the New Orleans
Public Library, the Archdiocese's comprehensive
regional records, and the Amistad Research Center's
collection of African American history. Among the
documents at stake are hundreds of years worth of
mortgages, real-estate records, marriage, birth and
death certificates, manumissions, and slave sale
records, dating back to New Orleans' time as a French
and Spanish colony. There is original documentation of
the Louisiana Purchase and the Battle of New Orleans,
Confederate veterans' handwritten remembrances, city
planning documents, the histories of Mardi Gras and
Jazz Fest. And that doesn't even take into account the
various collections of non-regional materials -- from
rare science fiction and gay and lesbian collections to
Amistad's collections from the Harlem Renaissance. Who
knows what damage has been done to the letters,
diaries, records, and book collections housed in
private homes?

Last weekend, archivists attempted to get back into the
Notarial Archives, a one-of-a-kind collection of over
40 million pages of signed acts compiled by New Orleans
notaries dating back to 1699. Some of the archives were
in the old Amoco building in the French Quarter, while
others were in the basement of the civil courts
building. The archivists were blocked by Federal
Troops. The story was reported by the Times-Picayune,
perhaps spurring guards to finally allow the curators
into the archives on Tuesday September 6, along with
representatives from Munters, a Swedish disaster
recovery firm.

Reports from Notarial Archives were encouraging.
Curator Ann Wakefield posted to the SSA message board
that the archive's research center, on the third floor
of the Amoco building, had sustained minimal damage,
though the civil courts building had taken in some
water. On Sept. 8, Wakefield reported that Munters had
pumped out the Civil District Courthouse office, and
that "The plans are to remove all records from the
courthouse location tomorrow." As for the Amoco
building, Wakefield wrote, "The most cost-effective
thing we can do to stabilize the research center is to
block up the broken windows and pump air conditioning
in. It is still uncertain whether this can be

Other archivists were feeling relatively lucky as well,
though anxious about gaining access. Brenda Square
heads the Amistad Research Center, which houses the
records of the American Missionary Association, the
first abolitionist missionary society in the United
States, and contains art, photographs, and over 15
million documents charting African American history.
Reached by phone, Square said, "Fortunately, the news
has been good. We have yet to get in to evaluate our
collection. But our building, which is on the Tulane
campus, did not get any water." Square noted that she
had been as prepared as possible, and had spent recent
years "monitoring information which indicated the high
probabilities of high water levels [in the case of
flooding]. So over the last five years we've moved
valuable things up to higher levels." That said, Square
continued, "We will feel so much better when we're able
to go into buildings and evaluate the situations."

Square added that, "The collections in New Orleans are
very important to the nation. This city is older than
America itself. If we want to look at multiculturalism,
then New Orleans is the starting point."

Things also looked positive for the Tulane Special
Collections department, the oldest and largest
historical research center in the city, though attempts
by Salon to reach the collection's curators were
unsuccessful. Susan Tucker, curator of Books and
Records at the Newcomb Archives at Tulane, was reached
by phone in Alabama. Tucker had posted a message
suggesting that busloads of archivists from different
institutions go into the city to "begin to consider
recovery." As of press time, no such bus had been
allowed inside city limits. By phone, Tucker said that
she was confident that many of her materials, housed
separately from the library's main collection, escaped
floodwaters. But she expressed concern over off-site
storage shared with Amistad, located in an area that
she hadn't even heard reports about yet.

Early Internet rumors suggested that the exhibits at
the Historic New Orleans Collection -- including a
recent show on the 1815 Battle of New Orleans -- were
taken down the weekend before the storm hit and moved
to a higher floor. The HNOC's collection includes
everything from legal documents to diaries to theater
programs and sheet music, pamphlets and books about
colonial Louisiana, the Louisiana Purchase, the Civil
War, Mississippi River life, and Mardi Gras. On
Saturday Sept. 10, a Web post informed archivists that
state troopers had allowed HNOC senior staff inside the
building, where they were "able to move some priority
collections off site as a precaution," but that
"generally all is well."

Two collections that had most archivists reached by
Salon panicked were the city records housed in the
basement of the Public Library, and the Special
Collections at the University of New Orleans, located
in an area of the city that was completely flooded out.
On the message boards, there was little news, and
satellite photos seemed to show the main library
building completely surrounded by flood waters. By
press time, there was still no news on UNO.

But on Friday came word from Irene Wainwright,
Assistant Archivist at the Louisiana Division/City
Archives at the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL).
Wainwright sent a message to the Miami of Ohio Archives
listserv that began, "New Orleans Public Library is
delighted to be able to announce that the New Orleans
City Archives, which we hold, is relatively safe.
Although the majority of our records (as well as the
19th and early 20th century records of the Orleans
Parish civil and criminal courts) are housed in the
basement of the Main Library, some 18 feet below sea
level, the basement remained essentially dry."
Wainwright and archivist Wayne Everard gained access to
the building on Thursday, along with a Munters
representative. "We discovered that the basement
sustained NO FLOODING," wrote Wainwright. Wainwright's
e-mail summarized other damage to the Main Library
(minimal) and the NOPL system. "Probably about half of
our 11 branch libraries are under water," she wrote.
"But these we can (and will) rebuild. The fact that the
archives have survived leaves us almost delirious with
relief." Wainwright concluded, "We are unbelievably
lucky, and I think I now believe in miracles...."

It's great news. But it's also early news. And the hot,
wet conditions in New Orleans, combined with the lack
of access mean that there are more risks -- and more
careful evaluations -- ahead. In several cases, there
were conflicting reports. Beauvoir, the Mississippi
home and presidential library of Confederate President
Jefferson Davis at first appeared to have fared badly.
Significant damage was done to the main residence, and
early reports indicated that two outbuildings --
including a free-standing library containing Davis's
papers -- were obliterated. With experts scattered, and
eyewitness accounts hard to come by, questions remained
as to whether those papers had been removed from the
vulnerable library before the storm.

And while word from the Museum of Art, where employees
had weathered the storm, and in doing so helped to save
the art collection before being told to leave by armed
National Guards on Friday Sept 2, was great, there were
big question marks about other cultural institutions
like the D-Day Museum, the Confederate Museum and the
Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs. The Hogan Jazz
Archive at Tulane appeared to be safe. But a casino
riverboat had crushed the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-
O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, destroying an African-
American arts collection. The Old Capitol Museum in
Mississippi, it was reported in the Clarion Ledger, had
its roof "peeled back like a banana," allowing water to
stream in on its collection of clothing, paintings,
swords and furniture.

And even those collections of paper that escaped the
disintegrating effects of flood waters now sit, without
temperature control, in humid conditions that create a
scary breeding ground for mold -- preservationists'
arch enemy.

"The big issue at this point is being able to get in
and do an assessment and freeze materials," said Gregor
Trinkaus-Randall, a preservation specialist at the
Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, and chair
of the preservation section of the Society of American
Archivists who noted that he and his fellow archivists
had been in New Orleans a week prior to the hurricane
for the annual SAA meeting. "I can tell you what the
temperature and humidity is like down there right now
and with the incredible amount of water that's there,
you have a 48-hour window before mold begins to grow."

Bruce Turner, head of Special Collections at the
University of Louisiana at Lafayette, was also
concerned about the possible mold damage. He explained
that mold "actually eats into the papers." He said that
the speed of destruction depended on the type of mold
and the type of paper, but that "ultimately this is
botanical growth and if it's not treated it can
eventually simply eat the paper away." In addition,
there's the fact that for some people, the mold can be
toxic, making preservation attempts increasingly costly
and dangerous the longer they go untended to.

That's where Munters, and other salvage companies, come

Lauren Reid, the vice president and general manager for
Munters, the Stockholm-based restoration company, said,
"Everything from records for records managers to one-
of-a-kind types of things have been impacted" by
Katrina and its aftermath. "The key is to get archival
records or books stabilized and into a neutral
environment." A neutral environment means a freezer.
"That's the first thing you've got to do," said Reid.
"It stops any deterioration of the documents and puts
them into a state where no mold will develop. This is
first and foremost. Once you get the documents frozen
it gives you some time." Reid said for smaller
collections, a small chest freezer could be brought in,
but for the larger archives, freezer trailers on the
back of semis will have to be brought into the city,
and of course, there will need to be power to run them.

Reid was comparatively upbeat about the possibilities
for document recovery, pointing out that post 9/11,
"people are much more in tune to disaster planning.
They are much better prepared. They don't put documents
and books in bottom shelves. They look at their
facilities with far more of a smart approach."

But that doesn't put all the fears about the
documentary treasures of New Orleans to rest. More than
one archivist spoke to Salon about fears for their
collections and later called back to plead that we not
publish the remarks, lest it become clear that a group
of important and valuable items were sitting unguarded,
uncared for, waiting for anyone to come along and steal

But will the government -- on federal, state, or local
levels -- allow experts to get in to protect and care
for the historical record? How can we not consider that
much of what makes New Orleans' history unique is that
it is a city where European, African, and Caribbean
cultures have cohabited like no place else in the U.S.?
And then there is its pivotal role in the slave trade,
a part of history that some Americans are all too eager
to forget. It's hard to imagine, were there to be a
natural disaster in Boston or Philadelphia, officials
failing to prioritize the preservation of our Puritan
and Quaker histories. But records of the Africans who
were imported through the port of New Orleans and sold
up the Mississippi River? Perhaps it's too easy to
conceive of an unconscious desire to let that history
-- so fundamental to the country, but so ugly that
we've always tried to keep it hidden -- literally rot.

Sarah Canby Jackson, an archivist for the Harris
Country Archives in Houston, Texas, who has offered
space to collections that need it, said by phone, "My
concern as an archivist is that cultural materials have
such a low priority. No one's arguing about saving
lives, no one's saying let's go in and save our
manuscripts before we pull people out of the water,"
she clarified. "But people do not understand the value
of these records. They provide the entire basis of this
country and New Orleans... People think 'Oh, so you
lose the papers of some writer or something. But that's
not what this means. This is your heritage. It's
everything that makes you who you are."

"New Orleans has perhaps the richest documentary
history of anywhere in the U.S.," said Robert de
Berardinis, a genealogist. He argued that this was in
part because French and Spanish record-keeping systems
"bordered on the compulsive," and in part because freed
slaves were allowed to live alongside white Louisianans
before the Civil War. "As a result you have a situation
there where the records of people of color prior to the
Civil War were kept by the churches and in the property
records," he said, adding, "This is a crying shame." He
predicted that the genealogical projects of people who
trace their roots back through New Orleans "will be
hurt by this."

But the paper situation is not simply about history.
Some of the concerns of archivists and record-keepers
are very much about the present and future. A Times-
Picayune story last week revealed the possible loss of
thousands of real estate records -- including titles,
mortgages, and liens dating back to 1827 stored in the
New Orleans City Hall basement. If those records are
stewing, that means not only a loss of historical
documentation; but that people will have trouble
deciding who owns what -- right now.

The Picayune also quoted a New Orleans law professor
who claimed that thousands of lawyers may have lost
parts of their filings, including documents crucial to
criminal cases. And on Friday Sept 2 Clive Stafford
Smith, a co-founder of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance
Center, wrote in the Guardian about how damage to
records could hobble the fight to represent those
facing the death penalty. "The ground floor of [LCAC]
was the storage area: boxes and boxes of papers... most
a potential life raft for the living," wrote Smith. "In
2003, it took one single document identifying the true
killer to rescue Dan Bright after nine years' wrongful
conviction. The DNA test results that freed Ryan
Matthews from death row are probably disintegrating
into mulch, along with his chances of receiving

It's also not lost on those who pay attention to
preservation that they are living through world-
changing history right now. Brent Hightower, the only
archivist at the Times-Picayune after the hurricane,
posted a notice on message boards looking for
preservation materials. "The first priority," said
Hightower by phone, "is my friends and coworkers who
are taking pictures and writing stories, making sure
their stuff is backed up and not lost." Hightower said
he is making every effort to "preserve a historical
record" of the current events, as well as preserving
paper copies of current newspapers. He said he's also
trying to keep contiguous microfilm records and hard
copy records. "I've looked at those records from Betsy
in 1965 so many times," said Hightower. "It would
destroy me if I couldn't figure out a way to provide
that for future generations."

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