News & Notes

Cleaning up after Katrina: A Special Collections Perspective

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Drying photographs

As a repository of historical materials about Louisiana, it’s only natural that Special Collections look back and remember those harrowing and heartbreaking days after Hurricane Katrina.

The library and archives community in Louisiana is a relatively small one, and many of us had good friends who worked in the cultural institutions in and around New Orleans. We worried about their safety and hoped against hope that their collections would be ok. Before too long, we began hearing from them, with requests for help. Many of us had been helping out with the efforts on campus, but these calls gave us the welcome opportunity to put our professional skills and facilities to good use.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, we assisted the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Notre Dame Seminary, and the St. Bernard Parish newspaper by providing freezer space for wet materials and safe storage for other collections in harm’s way. In addition, we helped the Louisiana State Museum triage and dry some of their affected materials.

Over a month after Katrina and a few days after Hurricane Rita, we received another request for assistance when we learned of the fate of the collection of New Orleans photographer Donn Young.

Viewing negatives

Young began his professional photographer’s life over 35 years ago. His work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, and many other publications. In addition to his studio and commercial work, he became the official photographer of the Port of New Orleans in 1996.

His entire life’s work was in his Lakeview studio and home when the flood waters came. Unreachable for weeks, his home and studio were submerged, drained, and submerged again, with the collection left to mold and ruin in a witches’ brew of brackish water, sewage, petroleum products, and other compounds while efforts to drain the city got underway.

On the morning of September 30, Special Collections received a telephone call from Donn. Unable to save his 35-year archive of work without help, Young donated his collection to the LSU Libraries in order that something, anything, might be saved. When a team comprised of Associate Dean for Special Collections Faye Phillips, Curator Elaine Smyth, and Image Resources Curator Mark Martin arrived to survey the materials, they found a motley mix of some 80 containers in which approximately 100 cubic feet of material were stewing in a mix of contaminated water, leached photography chemicals, and muck. Despite its condition, the documentary value of the work was clear. Believing there might be some salvageable materials, the LSU team began an urgent search for a rental truck, much in demand in the aftermath of two hurricanes, to transport the materials to Baton Rouge.

On Sunday, October 2, Phillips, Smyth, and Martin drove to Metairie to load the truck. Some of the largest containers, too heavy to be lifted safely, were repacked into smaller boxes. After four hours the truck was loaded and headed back upriver. Over the following four days Special Collections staff assembled behind the Library to triage the collection.

As expected the damage was extensive, since photographic materials do not take well to being underwater for a month. Most of the 35 mm color negative and color positive film was completely destroyed, as was almost all the 120 mm black & white negative film. Some of the 4” x 5” color negative and color positive film that had been placed in Mylar sleeves survived; some of the 35 mm black & white negative film looked as if it might be salvageable.

Damaged 35 mm negatives.

There were also more than 1,000 CD-ROMs in the mix. The aluminum layer on many of these disks completely debonded leaving a transparent disk behind, while many others suffered some degree of damage rendering them unreadable on local CD-ROM readers. A sampling at the time of disks with no visible damage revealed 4 out of 5 were still readable without using extraordinary measures; unfortunately, these undamaged disks form a very small fraction of the whole.

The Libraries’ salvage operation reduced the size of the collection from approximately 100 cubic feet to approximately 28 cubic feet, which was immediately placed in the our walk-in freezer to stabilize the materials and give the staff time to develop an action plan for the next phase of recovery.

With support from grant funds, Special Collections staff and graduate assistants, we were ultimately able to salvage over 6 linear feet including 25,000 images portraying a wide range of images from New Orleans, Louisiana, and beyond. Images include people, art, music, theater, plants, food, buildings, views, manners and customs, religion and culture, education, medicine, business, industry and transportation, associations and institutions, and sports. The materials featured in the 2008 exhibition in Hill Library “After Katrina,” and a selection of the salvaged images is available in the Louisiana Digital Library.

 

Jessica Lacher-Feldman is the Head of Special Collections at Louisiana State University.

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