History is being flooded, too

Slave records, jazz archives, Jefferson Davis' mansion: Hurricane Katrina has put them all in peril.


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Rebecca Traister
September 11, 2005 12:50AM (UTC)

On Thursday Sept. 8, Shelly Henley Kelly, the immediate past president of the Society of Southwest Archivists composed a letter to the editors of major newspapers.

"Imagine that Washington D.C. is struck by a CAT 5 hurricane and the National Archives has been damaged and/or flooded," Kelly, an archivist at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, wrote. "Archivists and conservators are trained to have a disaster response/disaster recovery plan. They will get in and begin the massive effort to reclaim the damaged documents... But what happens when the archivist is prevented from returning to the repository? How long can the many important documents, photographs, sound recordings documenting our nation's history and culture sit alone, un-airconditioned, possibly wet, before they rot beyond any hope for recovery?"

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This, Kelly argued in her letter, is precisely what has been happening for nearly two weeks in New Orleans' cultural and historical repositories. "More than ten days after what will probably become the greatest natural disaster in the United States... archivists have NOT BEEN ALLOWED into their collections -- not for a day, an afternoon, even an hour," read the letter. If these collections are ignored, wrote Kelly, "they will soon be unrecoverable... New Orleans, a city so rich in history, may soon become a city with no history."

It's a terrifying prospect, and one that grows more real every day. As the human costs of Hurricane Katrina mount, so too do the possible historical, cultural, and intellectual losses. Some attention has been paid to the conditions at the New Orleans Art Museum, the region's zoos and aquariums, its hobbled architectural landscape. But what about New Orleans' delicate and vital documentary history, the papers and books that tell us how the country was built, and who its citizens were: who they married, to whom they were born, and in many cases, to whom they were sold.

Papers -- brittle, ancient, susceptible to mold, mildew and complete disintegration -- have been sitting in the toxic fug of flood-ravaged New Orleans for two weeks. For many curators, initial fears that water might enter through blown-out windows gave way to panic about the stew that was surely drowning basement archives, which in turn gave way to anxiety about dangerously muggy conditions. For two weeks archivists and preservationists have batted messages back and forth online -- trading in rumor and satellite photos to try to guess which repositories got flooded and which stayed dry. This week, while good news emerged about imperiled collections that escaped flooding, it also became clear that the risks to the miles of paper that provide a one-of-a-kind story of the United States are far from over.

Their collections abandoned and vulnerable to looting and humidity and fire, preservationists are worried -- and we should be too -- that among the many casualties of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath will be portions of one of the nation's richest histories.

"There's a little bit of desperation coming out," said Brenda Gunn, current president of the Society of Southwest Archivists, which set up a message board to track information about the condition of the region's archives. "No one's getting in; assessments aren't being made; the clock is ticking for these collections and records." Of course, said Gunn, "the first priority is rescuing people and saving lives. But we also need to address some of the important cultural issues." Gunn wrote a letter to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco on Thursday Sept 8, "appealing ... for assistance in allowing representatives from New Orleans archival institutions back into the city." Access and assessment, Gunn pleaded with the governor, "is the only way to avoid a cultural catastrophe."

Desperate archivists. Desperate curators and librarians and preservationists, some of whom told me, off the record, that they would be willing to arm themselves to get back into the city to try to save their collections. It may sound funny, but it's far from amusing. "Quite honestly I'd probably faint dead away if even a single 'leader' thought for one second that there are archival repositories that need immediate disaster recovery efforts," wrote Shelly Kelly in an e-mail, noting that she wouldn't blame them, given the ongoing search and rescue missions. But she said, if any civilians are being allowed into the city to view their places of business, "then we must start immediately with the ones that house the IRREPLACEABLE historical and cultural heritage."

New Orleans is home to a vast collection of archival material. Major repositories include the Special Collections departments at Tulane University and the University of New Orleans, the Notarial Archives, Jazz archives, The Historic New Orleans Collection, the city records stored in the basement of the New Orleans Public Library, the Archdiocese's comprehensive regional records, and the Amistad Research Center's collection of African American history. Among the documents at stake are hundreds of years worth of mortgages, real-estate records, marriage, birth and death certificates, manumissions, and slave sale records, dating back to New Orleans' time as a French and Spanish colony. There is original documentation of the Louisiana Purchase and the Battle of New Orleans, Confederate veterans' handwritten remembrances, city planning documents, the histories of Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. And that doesn't even take into account the various collections of non-regional materials -- from rare science fiction and gay and lesbian collections to Amistad's collections from the Harlem Renaissance. Who knows what damage has been done to the letters, diaries, records, and book collections housed in private homes?

Last weekend, archivists attempted to get back into the Notarial Archives, a one-of-a-kind collection of over 40 million pages of signed acts compiled by New Orleans notaries dating back to 1699. Some of the archives were in the old Amoco building in the French Quarter, while others were in the basement of the civil courts building. The archivists were blocked by Federal Troops. The story was reported by the Times-Picayune, perhaps spurring guards to finally allow the curators into the archives on Tuesday September 6, along with representatives from Munters, a Swedish disaster recovery firm.

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Reports from Notarial Archives were encouraging. Curator Ann Wakefield posted to the SSA message board that the archive's research center, on the third floor of the Amoco building, had sustained minimal damage, though the civil courts building had taken in some water. On Sept. 8, Wakefield reported that Munters had pumped out the Civil District Courthouse office, and that "The plans are to remove all records from the courthouse location tomorrow." As for the Amoco building, Wakefield wrote, "The most cost-effective thing we can do to stabilize the research center is to block up the broken windows and pump air conditioning in. It is still uncertain whether this can be accomplished."

Other archivists were feeling relatively lucky as well, though anxious about gaining access. Brenda Square heads the Amistad Research Center, which houses the records of the American Missionary Association, the first abolitionist missionary society in the United States, and contains art, photographs, and over 15 million documents charting African American history. Reached by phone, Square said, "Fortunately, the news has been good. We have yet to get in to evaluate our collection. But our building, which is on the Tulane campus, did not get any water." Square noted that she had been as prepared as possible, and had spent recent years "monitoring information which indicated the high probabilities of high water levels [in the case of flooding]. So over the last five years we've moved valuable things up to higher levels." That said, Square continued, "We will feel so much better when we're able to go into buildings and evaluate the situations."

Square added that, "The collections in New Orleans are very important to the nation. This city is older than America itself. If we want to look at multiculturalism, then New Orleans is the starting point."

Things also looked positive for the Tulane Special Collections department, the oldest and largest historical research center in the city, though attempts by Salon to reach the collection's curators were unsuccessful. Susan Tucker, curator of Books and Records at the Newcomb Archives at Tulane, was reached by phone in Alabama. Tucker had posted a message suggesting that busloads of archivists from different institutions go into the city to "begin to consider recovery." As of press time, no such bus had been allowed inside city limits. By phone, Tucker said that she was confident that many of her materials, housed separately from the library's main collection, escaped floodwaters. But she expressed concern over off-site storage shared with Amistad, located in an area that she hadn't even heard reports about yet.

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Early Internet rumors suggested that the exhibits at the Historic New Orleans Collection -- including a recent show on the 1815 Battle of New Orleans -- were taken down the weekend before the storm hit and moved to a higher floor. The HNOC's collection includes everything from legal documents to diaries to theater programs and sheet music, pamphlets and books about colonial Louisiana, the Louisiana Purchase, the Civil War, Mississippi River life, and Mardi Gras. On Saturday Sept. 10, a Web post informed archivists that state troopers had allowed HNOC senior staff inside the building, where they were "able to move some priority collections off site as a precaution," but that "generally all is well."

Two collections that had most archivists reached by Salon panicked were the city records housed in the basement of the Public Library, and the Special Collections at the University of New Orleans, located in an area of the city that was completely flooded out. On the message boards, there was little news, and satellite photos seemed to show the main library building completely surrounded by flood waters. By press time, there was still no news on UNO.

But on Friday came word from Irene Wainwright, Assistant Archivist at the Louisiana Division/City Archives at the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL). Wainwright sent a message to the Miami of Ohio Archives listserv that began, "New Orleans Public Library is delighted to be able to announce that the New Orleans City Archives, which we hold, is relatively safe. Although the majority of our records (as well as the 19th and early 20th century records of the Orleans Parish civil and criminal courts) are housed in the basement of the Main Library, some 18 feet below sea level, the basement remained essentially dry." Wainwright and archivist Wayne Everard gained access to the building on Thursday, along with a Munters representative. "We discovered that the basement sustained NO FLOODING," wrote Wainwright. Wainwright's e-mail summarized other damage to the Main Library (minimal) and the NOPL system. "Probably about half of our 11 branch libraries are under water," she wrote. "But these we can (and will) rebuild. The fact that the archives have survived leaves us almost delirious with relief." Wainwright concluded, "We are unbelievably lucky, and I think I now believe in miracles...."

It's great news. But it's also early news. And the hot, wet conditions in New Orleans, combined with the lack of access mean that there are more risks -- and more careful evaluations -- ahead. In several cases, there were conflicting reports. Beauvoir, the Mississippi home and presidential library of Confederate President Jefferson Davis at first appeared to have fared badly. Significant damage was done to the main residence, and early reports indicated that two outbuildings -- including a free-standing library containing Davis's papers -- were obliterated. With experts scattered, and eyewitness accounts hard to come by, questions remained as to whether those papers had been removed from the vulnerable library before the storm.

And while word from the Museum of Art, where employees had weathered the storm, and in doing so helped to save the art collection before being told to leave by armed National Guards on Friday Sept 2, was great, there were big question marks about other cultural institutions like the D-Day Museum, the Confederate Museum and the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs. The Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane appeared to be safe. But a casino riverboat had crushed the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, destroying an African-American arts collection. The Old Capitol Museum in Mississippi, it was reported in the Clarion Ledger, had its roof "peeled back like a banana," allowing water to stream in on its collection of clothing, paintings, swords and furniture.

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And even those collections of paper that escaped the disintegrating effects of flood waters now sit, without temperature control, in humid conditions that create a scary breeding ground for mold -- preservationists' arch enemy.

"The big issue at this point is being able to get in and do an assessment and freeze materials," said Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, a preservation specialist at the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, and chair of the preservation section of the Society of American Archivists who noted that he and his fellow archivists had been in New Orleans a week prior to the hurricane for the annual SAA meeting. "I can tell you what the temperature and humidity is like down there right now and with the incredible amount of water that's there, you have a 48-hour window before mold begins to grow."

Bruce Turner, head of Special Collections at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, was also concerned about the possible mold damage. He explained that mold "actually eats into the papers." He said that the speed of destruction depended on the type of mold and the type of paper, but that "ultimately this is botanical growth and if it's not treated it can eventually simply eat the paper away." In addition, there's the fact that for some people, the mold can be toxic, making preservation attempts increasingly costly and dangerous the longer they go untended to.

That's where Munters, and other salvage companies, come in.

Lauren Reid, the vice president and general manager for Munters, the Stockholm-based restoration company, said, "Everything from records for records managers to one-of-a-kind types of things have been impacted" by Katrina and its aftermath. "The key is to get archival records or books stabilized and into a neutral environment." A neutral environment means a freezer. "That's the first thing you've got to do," said Reid. "It stops any deterioration of the documents and puts them into a state where no mold will develop. This is first and foremost. Once you get the documents frozen it gives you some time." Reid said for smaller collections, a small chest freezer could be brought in, but for the larger archives, freezer trailers on the back of semis will have to be brought into the city, and of course, there will need to be power to run them.

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Reid was comparatively upbeat about the possibilities for document recovery, pointing out that post 9/11, "people are much more in tune to disaster planning. They are much better prepared. They don't put documents and books in bottom shelves. They look at their facilities with far more of a smart approach."

But that doesn't put all the fears about the documentary treasures of New Orleans to rest. More than one archivist spoke to Salon about fears for their collections and later called back to plead that we not publish the remarks, lest it become clear that a group of important and valuable items were sitting unguarded, uncared for, waiting for anyone to come along and steal them.

But will the government -- on federal, state, or local levels -- allow experts to get in to protect and care for the historical record? How can we not consider that much of what makes New Orleans' history unique is that it is a city where European, African, and Caribbean cultures have cohabited like no place else in the U.S.? And then there is its pivotal role in the slave trade, a part of history that some Americans are all too eager to forget. It's hard to imagine, were there to be a natural disaster in Boston or Philadelphia, officials failing to prioritize the preservation of our Puritan and Quaker histories. But records of the Africans who were imported through the port of New Orleans and sold up the Mississippi River? Perhaps it's too easy to conceive of an unconscious desire to let that history -- so fundamental to the country, but so ugly that we've always tried to keep it hidden -- literally rot.

Sarah Canby Jackson, an archivist for the Harris Country Archives in Houston, Texas, who has offered space to collections that need it, said by phone, "My concern as an archivist is that cultural materials have such a low priority. No one's arguing about saving lives, no one's saying let's go in and save our manuscripts before we pull people out of the water," she clarified. "But people do not understand the value of these records. They provide the entire basis of this country and New Orleans... People think 'Oh, so you lose the papers of some writer or something. But that's not what this means. This is your heritage. It's everything that makes you who you are."

"New Orleans has perhaps the richest documentary history of anywhere in the U.S.," said Robert de Berardinis, a genealogist. He argued that this was in part because French and Spanish record-keeping systems "bordered on the compulsive," and in part because freed slaves were allowed to live alongside white Louisianans before the Civil War. "As a result you have a situation there where the records of people of color prior to the Civil War were kept by the churches and in the property records," he said, adding, "This is a crying shame." He predicted that the genealogical projects of people who trace their roots back through New Orleans "will be hurt by this."

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But the paper situation is not simply about history. Some of the concerns of archivists and record-keepers are very much about the present and future. A Times-Picayune story last week revealed the possible loss of thousands of real estate records -- including titles, mortgages, and liens dating back to 1827 stored in the New Orleans City Hall basement. If those records are stewing, that means not only a loss of historical documentation; but that people will have trouble deciding who owns what -- right now.

The Picayune also quoted a New Orleans law professor who claimed that thousands of lawyers may have lost parts of their filings, including documents crucial to criminal cases. And on Friday Sept 2 Clive Stafford Smith, a co-founder of the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, wrote in the Guardian about how damage to records could hobble the fight to represent those facing the death penalty. "The ground floor of [LCAC] was the storage area: boxes and boxes of papers... most a potential life raft for the living," wrote Smith. "In 2003, it took one single document identifying the true killer to rescue Dan Bright after nine years' wrongful conviction. The DNA test results that freed Ryan Matthews from death row are probably disintegrating into mulch, along with his chances of receiving compensation."

It's also not lost on those who pay attention to preservation that they are living through world-changing history right now. Brent Hightower, the only archivist at the Times-Picayune after the hurricane, posted a notice on message boards looking for preservation materials. "The first priority," said Hightower by phone, "is my friends and coworkers who are taking pictures and writing stories, making sure their stuff is backed up and not lost." Hightower said he is making every effort to "preserve a historical record" of the current events, as well as preserving paper copies of current newspapers. He said he's also trying to keep contiguous microfilm records and hard copy records. "I've looked at those records from Betsy in 1965 so many times," said Hightower. "It would destroy me if I couldn't figure out a way to provide that for future generations."


Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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