Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reconstructing an organization's history in the wake of a disaster

On 29 October, Hurricane Sandy devastated eastern New Jersey and southeastern New York State. Dozens of people died, scores of homes and commercial buildings were destroyed, and the region's transportation infrastructure suffered extensive damage. Thousands of people are still struggling to salvage damaged possessions from houses that are damaged beyond repair or living in houses and apartment buildings that still lack electricity, gas, water, and other utilities. The governors of New Jersey and New York estimate that the total cost of their states' recovery will be approximately $79 billion.

Since 29 October, several of my colleagues have been fielding calls from state and local government agencies, colleges and universities, libraries, non-profit organizations, and other entities in New York State that have been affected by Sandy. I expect that we'll continue to get these calls for at least a few more weeks; several of the people who have been in contact with us have yet to receive permission to enter their facilities and inspect their records in person.

My involvement in the recovery effort has been pretty much limited to answering occasional questions relating to salvage of damaged electronic media, but I have been in touch with a non-profit organization that lost over twenty years' worth of archival records and publications when its storage space flooded. The records might have been salvageable, but they were discarded by building management, which didn't consult with the organization -- or any of the other organizations that used the same storage facility -- before doing so.

The organization -- which does life-saving work -- has a keen sense of its own history and wants to ensure that its work is documented appropriately. It has some ideas about how to recover its lost institutional history, but would appreciate suggestions from people who have gone though similar experiences. My colleagues and I were able to supply some suggestions, but we're more accustomed to helping people salvage damaged records. Moreover, the archival professional literature doesn't devote much attention to this topic. I thought that at least a few of this blog's tens of regular readers might have some additional ideas. If you have any ideas to add to the following list of strategies for reconstructing an organization's history in the wake of a disaster, please comment on this post.  Thanks!

1. The organization has a substantial social media presence, and its staff recognized right away that issuing a call for donations of older publications and other items might help to replace at least some of the materials that were lost.

2. The organization's office space wasn't damaged, and staff should search their file cabinets, laptops, desktops, and server for older files. A full-scale records inventory is probably in order.

3. The organization is headquartered in New York State but has several geographically distant branch offices. The other offices probably have paper or electronic copies of at least some lost records and publications.

4. The organization has a board of directors and an advisory group, and we suggested reaching out to current and former members of these bodies. (I'm really hoping that at least one member has pack-rat tendencies.) Current and former staff members may also have kept copies of records and publications that they helped to create; they may also have photographs and other materials that might help to document the organization's history.

5. An oral history project centering on current and former board members and staffers may help to recapture information that isn't present in surviving records.

6. The organization's finances are audited by an outside firm, and the firm may have copies of older financial records. The organization's outside counsel may also have copies of records of enduring or operational value.

7. The Internet Archive has been crawling the organization's site since the late 1990s, and a cursory review of the oldest crawls reveals that publications and other content that is no longer part of the organization's live site are available through the Internet Archive. A systematic review of the Internet Archive's crawls of the site may be in order.


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C in DC said...

Talk to their regional ephemera dealers/collectors and put the word out that they're looking for replacements. The local flea market vendors, etc., can turn up some amazing stuff. Also have volunteers keep their eyes open at thrift shops, used book stores, and other such places.