Rebecca Traister: History Is Being Flooded, too

Roundup: Talking About History

[Rebecca Traister is a staff writer for Salon Life.]

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?"

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.

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." ...

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