University of Illinois librarian to help Puerto Rican libraries with disaster recovery

Miriam Centeno, the collections care coordinator for the University of Illinois Library, will travel to Puerto Rico in January to help libraries there assess the damage to their collections from Hurricane Maria and determine their preservation needs.Photo courtesy University of Illinois Library

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Miriam Centeno, the collections care coordinator for the University of Illinois Library, will spend two weeks in January in Puerto Rico helping librarians assess and repair damage to their collections from Hurricane Maria.

Centeno will work as a consultant at the University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez Campus. She’ll lead a four-day program for library staff, training them to assess the library’s collections, conduct cleaning and rehousing of damaged materials, and develop disaster preparedness plans.

Centeno, a native of Puerto Rico, previously worked at the Library of Congress in collections care. While there, she assisted in disaster preparedness workshops offered by the Library of Congress in Puerto Rico. At the U. of I. Library, Centeno is responsible for the print and paper collections of the library – overseeing binding, repairs and housing of materials, as well as environmental monitoring and climate control, integrated pest management and disaster preparedness.

The University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez Campus library applied for and was awarded an emergency grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for disaster recovery related to preservation of and access to materials in the library.

The library building suffered water damage during Hurricane Maria when skylights were blown off, the roof was damaged and parts of the building flooded. The collections were not directly damaged by the water, but they are being affected by mold that began growing when the building was without electricity and air conditioning for three weeks. Air conditioning is back for portions of the building, but some areas are still hot and humid, and the staff isn’t able to stabilize the environmental conditions. In addition, metal shelving units are corroding and furniture was ruined.

“The area was hit, but was not as devastated as the rest of the island,” Centeno said.

The $30,000 NEH grant will pay for Centeno’s travel and lodging, but she is volunteering her services and using vacation time to be away from her U. of I. job. The grant is paying for supplies such as cleaning materials, vacuums with high-efficiency particulate arrestance filters, dehumidifiers, respirators for staff who will be doing the cleaning, and acid-free boxes and storage materials.

In her training workshop in Puerto Rico, Centeno will use a free online tool developed by the U. of I. Library called the Preservation Self-Assessment Program that helps library officials evaluate and manage the preservation of their collections. She’ll take three kits with her to Puerto Rico containing supplies to stabilize the physical condition of materials used to train library staff. She hopes to visit at least two other sites in addition to the University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez Campus to provide preservation training. The Library Friends – a group that supports the U. of I. Library – is paying for the kits. Other donated materials will provide information on how to salvage collections that have been damaged.

“I’ve been really touched by how people have been so kind and worried. It’s been heartening, because people think that nothing is happening” in terms of disaster relief, Centeno said.

Centeno will offer a one-day workshop, hosted by the University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez Campus, on preservation basics and disaster preparedness for other local institutions.

She has been working with a National Heritage Responder team – organized by the American Institute of Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works – that is partnering with the Library of Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to create a database of cultural institutions in Puerto Rico that may need help with disaster recovery. One of the biggest challenges due to the lack of communication and power is identifying damages and needs, as well as the lack of familiarity with Puerto Rican cultural institutions in the mainland. Centeno suggested that the University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez Campus work with local professional organizations to conduct an islandwide survey of libraries and cultural institutions.

“People are displaced. Libraries are closed. We’re not sure if people are still there or if they evacuated. There are a lot of places that are not safe to go into,” Centeno said.

While much of the focus of the training is damage assessment and stabilization of materials, Centeno will also train staff at the University of Puerto Rico – Mayaguez Campus library to look at overall preservation needs of the library, with the idea that they’ll create a preservation plan and be able to apply for grants to help pay for preservation needs. She hopes it will become a pilot that other libraries on the island can reproduce. It can also help identify specific needs – for example, preserving audiovisual materials – where libraries need to devote resources.

“What I’m hoping comes out of this terrible event is we really start planning for disaster preparedness,” Centeno said. “A lot of people are thinking in the same fashion and are very concerned about the next hurricane season.”



Source: Jodi Heckel/Arts and Humanities Editor/


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University of Illinois librarian to help Puerto Rican libraries with disaster recovery