Texas iSchool partners with FEMA, Smithsonian to assist libraries and archives damaged by Harvey

Ferguson, John  |  Sep 07, 2017

News Image: 
Flooded museum
Image Caption: 
A museum is surrounded by floodwaters Aug. 31 near Houston. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jason Robertson)
News Image: 
Rebecca Elder
Image Caption: 
Rebecca Elder

As floodwaters recede from Houston and the Gulf Coast, the Texas iSchool is coordinating a national effort to identify and assist the libraries, museums, archives and cultural institutions most affected by Hurricane Harvey.
 
Student volunteers in The University of Texas at Austin School of Information have identified more than 500 institutions that may have been in the hurricane’s path. As they gather contact information and monitor websites and social media feeds for updates, students say they will begin calling libraries and other collections on Sept. 11.
 
“We’re trying to track down information on every institution in counties that are affected by Hurricane Harvey to find out what resources they need, if they were hit, if they’re OK, and how we can help them recover,” said Rebecca Elder, an adjunct faculty member who is overseeing the group of 16 student volunteers.
 
Elder is the coordinator of National Heritage Responders (NHR), the volunteer emergency recovery team of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. The UT Austin School of Information is also working with the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, a joint project of FEMA and the Smithsonian; TX-CERA, the Texas Cultural Emergency Response Alliance; and others.
 
In many cases, Elder said, affected libraries, governmental archives and other collections have only begun to assess their damage. Some, like the Heritage House of Orange County, remain inaccessible. “No tours for awhile,” the museum posted on its Facebook page. “Our world is flooded.”
 
After students make contact with the affected facilities and assess their needs, they will enter reports into a database that is being shared with the emergency task force. Elder added she will rely on the information provided by iSchool students as she organizes teams of conservators from National Heritage Responders to deploy to flood-ravaged areas.
 
In addition to iSchool students’ outreach efforts, senior lecturer Karen Pavelka, an expert in salvaging water-damaged books and paper materials, is fielding calls to a disaster-assistance hotline maintained by National Heritage Responders.
 
Student volunteers Ginny Barnes and Hannah Hopkins, both entering their first year in the iSchool’s Master of Science in Information Studies program, said they were eager to assist in Texas’ response to the storm. “The first priority is obviously people’s safety,” Barnes said, “but it’s also important to protect the cultural record for these communities.”
 
The students’ efforts are so critical to the recovery effort, according to Elder, she has been given time to discuss their work with members of the Heritage Emergency Task Force on Friday.
 
“The folks at FEMA are just amazed,” Elder said. “Karen and I are both absolutely thrilled that our students are willing to step up to the plate the first week of school and take on a job like this. We’re even more thrilled that our students are smart and competent, and we can give them this project and say, ‘Here, take this and run with it,’ and know the job is going to be done well.”
 
Pavelka and Elder have also created a list of emergency salvage tips at https://www.ischool.utexas.edu/recovery. For advice, e-mail response@ischool.utexas.edu or call 512-903-9564.
 
Media inquiries: Wes Ferguson, School of Information, 512-787-5213

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