When a typhoon hits an archive

Disaster planning in Laos
 Mick Newnham

NFSA Senior Researcher Mick Newnham shares his expertise with South-East Asian archivists at SEAPAVAA in Vientiane, Laos – and is elected president.

Vientiane workshop
Preservation workshop, Vientiane.

The South East Asia Pacific Audiovisual Archives Association (SEAPAVAA) is one of the most active audiovisual archiving groups in the world. Among other things, SEAPAVAA runs regional training projects and I am back in one of my favourite cities, Vientiane, Laos to run a workshop on collection disaster recovery for archivists. It later turned out I was there for another important reason – SEAPAVAA councillors are elected for a three-year term and this year was the council election. I was pleased and privileged to be elected as council president and look forward to continuing to share the NFSA’s expertise in this forum.

When I first started working with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic National Film Archive and Video Centre (NFVC) they had a collection that had spent many years barely surviving through war and the decidedly unhelpful tropical climate. They had nothing but a fairly inappropriate room to use for storing their collection (it didn’t even have an air conditioner). Today they have one of the best audiovisual archives in South-East Asia and it’s down to plain hard work and very, very dedicated staff.

I spent my first morning in Vientiane sourcing materials for the workshop. There are many items that are common in Australia that are hard to find in other regions – for example, standard 75×127 index cards. Alternatives had to be found. The morning was therefore spent wandering around in 35-degree temperatures visiting small shops – a more accurate description would be ‘bonsai’d Bunnings’ – looking for tools, stands and suitable nylon string that could be fashioned into drying racks. All the little things someone needs in order to successfully salvage a collection after a disaster.
Preservation workshop, Vientiane.

The on-the-fly nature of equipping this workshop is in stark contrast to the careful selection of the samples and equipment involved in the audiovisual preservation course I presented at the University of Melbourne several weeks ago. However it is crucial to only use easily-sourced local materials in this part of the world, especially for a workshop on disaster recovery. Certainly there is a frustration in knowing that a task could be done better if you had access to equipment X or chemical Y, but it’s a matter of doing what you can with what you are given.

Understanding disaster planning and recovery is a crucial part of managing any collection. Audiovisual collections are extremely sensitive to water and dirt and poor post-disaster handling frequently does more harm to an object than the actual disaster!

After two days of workshops there are two underlying messages I hope participants will take away with them. First, an organisation needs to develop a culture of prevention so that when (not if) a disaster occurs it is clearly understood and sufficient consideration given to disaster mitigation during all aspects of business planning. Second, the knowledge that they are not alone and it is OK to ask for help when required.

Providing preservation advice across the world has its challenges but also rewards. One morning while sitting in an office discussing the workshop I heard a heavily Lao-accented ‘g’day mate’ from behind me. One of my students from a workshop I presented 10 years ago had dropped in to see me. How brilliant.

Hypothetical scenario

At 2 am at the height of Typhoon Hector, the hillside behind the broadcaster NTC1 collapsed and the resulting mudslide undermined the fuel storage area and ruptured the fuel lines to the generator. The pressure of the mudslide severely cracked the rear wall of the main building permitting water and mud flowing down the hillside to enter the building through the damaged wall, flooding the ground floor including the library to a depth of one metre. The access road was cut in two places by deep wash-outs approximately 500 metres from the building. The rising river level prevented the emergency services from reaching the building for a further 36 hours. The three on-duty staff were able to take shelter in an undamaged section of the building until they were rescued by the emergency services team. Typhoon Hector also damaged the national electricity grid, disrupting the power supply to the capital and surrounding region.

Preservation solution

Workshop attendees were expected to identify and manage the potential environmental, social, political, cultural, curatorial and practical risks. For example, in an area prone to typhoons, the design and construction of the building and the surrounding area should have been examined and modified if necessary. Also, vulnerable energy supplies should be better protected and the collection stored safely. We would also expect there to be solutions in place to protect access to the area. Emergency response solutions should have been discussed with the relevant authorities, and arrangements made with sister institutions to assist with collection storage, conservation of damaged items and business continuity. A communications plan should be available and advocates identified to ensure that salvage and reconstruction activities could be carried out as soon as possible. In responding to the emergency we’d hope that health and safety would be a priority as would the management of any associated psychological impacts on staff. Then we’d expect that attendees would be able to outline a range of conservation techniques for drying the affected collection material, managing mould and protecting collection information.