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iSchool Faculty Assist Puerto Rican Institutions

Karen Pavelka leading a book preservation and recovery workshop in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Texas iSchool Senior Lecturer Karen Pavelka traveled to Puerto Rico in January to assess damage and provide technical assistance to cultural institutions affected by Hurricane Maria.

The Category 4 storm hit the American territory in September 2017, devastating the island and crippling its infrastructure. In addition, many of Puerto Rico’s libraries, museums and archives experienced catastrophic damage.

“Things are still a mess,” Ms. Pavelka said. “Windows and walls are blown out. People are storing books on the floor, and there is lots of mold. I did a lot of showing people how to use soot sponges to take mold off books and paper.”

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are still without power. Electricity had recently been restored to most of the institutions that Ms. Pavelka visited in January, although she said it was still not entirely reliable. She was part of a four-person assessment team deployed by National Heritage Responders (NHR), the volunteer emergency recovery team of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

One of three NHR teams to visit Puerto Rico last month, Ms. Pavelka’s response team was led by Laura Hortz Stanton, executive director of the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia.  Beverly Perkins, Division Director of Museum Services at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and Jason Church, Materials Conservator with the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, were also team members.

The team conducted a disaster-recovery workshop for artists at the Museum of the Americas in San Juan, in addition to assessing damage and providing assistance to:

  • Puerto Rico’s Demographic Registry, which maintains the commonwealth’s birth certificates and other vital records;
  • An art museum and library at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey;
  • Fundación Nacional Para la Cultura Popular in San Juan;
  • The Inter-American University of Puerto Rico in San German, where the library had flooded and the roof leaked in multiple places.

Texas iSchool adjunct faculty member Rebecca Elder, the coordinator of NHR, has been helping to organize response teams’ visits to Puerto Rico since mid-November. Ms. Elder said NHR is still exploring the best ways to continue to help.

“There’s still a lot to be done,” Ms. Elder said. “I don’t think we need to send more people to do surveys. Training is the big thing that’s needed now.”

For those who wish to contribute to the recovery, Ms. Elder suggested making a donation to the the nonprofit Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (FAIC) and designating the funds for emergency programs. Ms. Elder also encouraged librarians and archivists to seek out local emergency response groups in their communities and neighborhoods to better prepare for the possibility of a future natural disaster in their area.

“Write a disaster plan,” she said. “Find out if you can count on other institutions near you in case of a disaster, and figure out how you can be involved.”