Friday, October 9, 2015

Disaster Management: 1973 Fire in St. Louis at the Military Personnel Records Center

In this week's class, we discussed several different topics including audiovisual and photographic preservation, as well as the difference between conservation and preservation. What I found to be most interesting was our discussion on disaster management. Having worked at several institutions where disasters have occurred, I've witnessed firsthand the implications of unexpected events, even if the institution was properly prepared. 

This past summer, I interned at Independence National Historical Park, where a fire broke out in the basement of the Second Bank of the United States. I worked on the conservation effort helping to mitigate soot presence on over 10,000 artifacts. However, it is intriguing to see how the cleanup and conservation effort is handled in an archival setting where not only the physical copies can be damaged, but the actual information contained within them can be permanently erased. 

A particular case study is the July 1973 fire that erupted within the Military Personnel Records Center (MPRC) just outside of St. Louis. The MPRC held over 22 million records that documented the service of Army, Army Air Force, and Air Force veterans between 1912 and 1963. You can read more about it here: 

While the fire damaged over 70 percent of the MPRC's records, the incident proved fundamental in sparking new disaster management protocols. This included installing fire suppression sprinklers, as well as new strategies for conserving damaged documents. The first thought that comes to mind, however, is: how are veterans and their families to access records that relate to them if they've been damaged? The Records Reconstruction Branch helps to make the information in burned records available to those who seek it, though some information is undoubtedly lost forever. It is certainly a loss of power for an archives, but it also affects veterans' access to important benefits they are eligible for through the state. 

Disasters within archives, such as this one, are detriments to larger archival functions and purpose. However, they established precedents that demonstrated the importance of preparedness for possible disasters and protocols for appropriate response. 

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