In the aftermath of a fire you need to move quickly, decisively and knowledgeably in order to save as much as can be saved. This advice I found on the National Archives of Australia website after a parish advised me two weeks on that their archives had been damaged in a fire. Little had been attempted to begin the salvage process at the outset although they had been advised by the Insurance Officer to freeze their wet records and contact those who would advise them on the correct way to handle the recovery process.
My initial contact with the parish secretary both exasperated and concerned me. Exasperated, because she informed me that they [the parish] had no idea there was a Presbyterian Church Archives to seek advice from but also concerned because of the confusion and grief the people of the parish were experiencing.
The Church Hall in which the parish collection of some 80 years had been stored was completely gutted and what was left had to be demolished for safety reasons. Initially it was understood that most of the records had gone up in flames, but as things settled down, it came to light in fact that many of the significant records were rescued although damaged – Marriage and Baptism Registers, Session and Board of Managers Minute Books, Financial ledgers and journals, the Women’s Organisations and some paper records.
After establishing that some of the records were wet, and a few helpful volunteers had begun to spread them out to dry in a sunny environ, that the balance were sitting in a cool place stacked up I planned to visit the area concerned to guide them through a salvidge process. However, it was decided to wrap up the records and forward them to us in Dunedin arriving a further 2 weeks later.
We can be grateful that in this month little mold had set in and other then a few items that were still rather soggy, the rest had dried out sufficiently to travel south.
It was the smell that staggered me when I began to unpack the boxes; it penetrated everywhere, even the mask did not cut out all the smoke fumes. Then there was that initial feeling of helplessness; just what will we do first, where will we work that is secure, how much available space is there around the building to lay out a wet collection, who has the time on the staff to take responsibility, who will turn the pages regularly, how will we set the salvage process and so on. I have to say that in my almost 17 years here in the Presbyterian Archives this is the first time I have faced such a task. It all sounds straight forward on paper, but a very different story when you come face to face with such serious damage.
There are a number of observations and issues that we need to acknowledge and deal with, these I will consider in later blog.