Books are laid out to dry after a 2015 storm damaged a community school in Port Vila, the capital city of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, Edgar Su/Reuters

Rare books, records, and other printed materials in thousands of U.S. archives face elevated risks from natural disasters or changing temperatures.

Centuries of written history are at risk of being damaged by climate change. Yet archivists, the stewards of this history, have sometimes been slow to wake up to the danger.

This history, in the form of manuscripts, codices, printed books, and other material artifacts, is kept in expensive and well-ventilated university collections; it is tucked in crumpling cardboard boxes under the desks of local librarians; it sits crammed into the storage cupboards of city governments. Some documents attract scholars from around the world, while others hold scant interest beyond hobbyist historians. Many are irreplaceable.

Almost all are at risk of degradation caused by projected temperature changes, humidity, sea level rise, storm surges, and precipitation, according to new research on United States collections by a group of archivists and climate scientists.

“The consequences of inaction could lead to damage to national archival infrastructure and degradation and loss of the precious cultural heritage materials housed within them,” the authors write.

Among the researchers is Eira Tansey, a records manager at the Archives and Rare Books Library of the University of Cincinnati. She became interested in climate change as a threat to historical documents around 10 years ago, while working as an archivist at Tulane University in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“I saw how the hurricane impacted different archives there. The archives I worked at had taken on some floodwater in the basement,” she says. “As a profession, we don’t necessarily understand all the risks right now. We know there are going to be a lot more disasters in the future, so how do we protect our collections in light of that knowledge?”

Tansey realized that, while archivists were alert to the possibility of disasters, and to their roles in disaster recovery, this work was still largely reactive, and no one was really thinking ahead to future climate scenarios. Correspondingly, little had been done to adapt U.S. repositories, a negligence that exposes them to unnecessary risk.

While the threats that climate change poses to material history are well-known and frequently studied, researchers have tended to focus on immovable assets, including archaeological monuments, buildings, and UNESCO World Heritage sites. Archives, because they are technically mobile, have received less attention, says Tara Mazurczyk, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, who led the new research into climate change and its effects on archives. Sadly, relocating buildings full of old and fragile documents may be too expensive and complicated to undertake.

The destruction of an archive doesn’t just mean the loss of cultural traditions and future scholarship. It can also herald legal difficulties, for instance, if land deeds suddenly disappear, Mazurczyk says.

“By generating this study, we’re hoping that archival managers will look at these impacts further into the future, so they won’t have to face the loss of all of these documents or have to have an emergency withdrawal of these movable pieces of work,” she says.

For their study, the researchers plotted the locations of 1,232 archives in the U.S. that were listed in publicly available data, then mapped them against climate-related data sets from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Weather Service.

This cross-referencing revealed that 99 percent of archives across the U.S. are at some risk from climate change. Some 2.4 percent are susceptible to surface water flooding, while 17.7 percent are at risk of the combined effects of sea level rise and storm surge. The biggest threat was increased variance in humidity and temperatures, with 90 percent of archives expected to experience a swing of at least 1 degree Celsius, and 7.5 percent projected to face a variation of 10 degrees Celsius or more, under a high-emissions scenario.

“The number-one thing you have to do to keep rare archival material from growing mildew or falling apart is to maintain a constant temperature and humidity,” Tansey says. “If the atmosphere outside is constantly hot one day, cold the next, that means you’re having to use that much more energy to keep your building at a consistent temperature for your collection, which is often contributing to climate change itself.”

Jeff Williams, director of the Health Sciences Library at New York University, was forced to consider climate change the hard way in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the city, flooding the cellar level of the library, where a cabinet of oversized archival documents were kept, alongside computers and staff office space. Scientists have said that the storm surge from Sandy was likely amplified by the sea-level rise caused by climate change.

Before the storm hit, staff took what they thought were sensible precautions, including moving computers from the floor onto desks and placing plastic over collections. Williams says that this kind of tinkering seemed almost comical in retrospect: A 14-foot storm surge ended up leaving the entire basement underwater for several days.

“It was a failure of imagination,” Williams says. “I don’t think anyone could really have imagined what happened.” Some of the holdings, including some 20th-century black-and-white photographs, plus archived awards and ceremonial certificates made from vellum, were damaged beyond repair, though conservators managed to restore other items in the collection. Several staff had to be laid off in the wake of the disaster, as their jobs disappeared along with the books and journals that they had managed.

In a list that the researchers drew of the most physically threatened archives, the Arthur Vining Davis Library at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida took the top spot. But the most vulnerable archive of all probably didn’t even appear in the study, Tansey confesses, once you take into account other factors that influence resilience to climate change, such as wealth, infrastructure, and access to relevant knowledge and networks.

That’s because the dataset that the researchers used was incomplete, comprising mainly wealthy institutions that already listed their information online. There’s no such public map of small, local collections, such as those housed by community historical societies. While these local collections may be rich in local history, they tend to be cash-strapped and dependent on enthusiastic volunteers, leaving them largely at the mercy of the elements when a disaster strikes.

Maps from the preliminary round-up of U.S. archives in Ohio (top) and Georgia show the huge number of repositories not captured in the existing database. (Maps: Tansey and Goldman)

“These small community archives aren’t necessarily on our radar,” Tansey says. “They’re not hosting thousands of historians a year, but they’re community archives and they contain local history records. They’re the ones I’m most worried about.” One of her co-authors, Ben Goldman, described this data deficiency as one of the “lingering disappointments” of their research.

Now, Tansey and Goldman are working to fix the problem. Starting in July of 2017, they embarked on a year-long project to find, aggregate, and make public a much more comprehensive bank of U.S. archives, which they hope will raise awareness of localized risks and help archivists find others in their profession who have faced similar difficulties, and to offer advice for the future. A disaster response specialist in Florida is already using the preliminary results to seek out small archives in the state that need help in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida in September of 2017.

There are measures that archivists can take to protect their collections, including identifying opportunities to relocate temporarily in the event of a disaster, or revamping storage facilities in light of local risks.

In addition, many libraries and archives are digitizing their collections, ensuring that anything destroyed by climate change continues to exist in pixels, if not on vellum and parchment and paper. The substance of the history might therefore be preserved, but it would take someone particularly unsentimental to say that nothing had been lost.

This story originally appeared on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine in print and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.

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