UI expert helping Puerto Rico libraries assess, repair hurricane damage

UI expert helping Puerto Rico libraries assess, repair hurricane damage

Since Hurricane Maria roared through Puerto Rico on the heels of another Category 5 storm named Irma, the focus has been on restoring electricity, food, water and other necessities to the ravaged island.

Beyond the 500 people killed and thousands of homes demolished by Maria, the storm also took a toll on libraries and other cultural institutions.

A University of Illinois expert arrived in Puerto Rico today to help libraries assess and repair the damage to their collections.

Miriam Centeno, the collections care coordinator at the UI Library and a native of Puerto Rico, will spend two weeks as a consultant at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez Campus.

That area was not as hard-hit as the rest of the island, but the university's library suffered water damage when skylights were blown off, the roof was damaged and parts of the building flooded.

The collections weren't directly damaged by the water, but mold began growing because the building was without electricity and air conditioning for three weeks. Some areas are still hot and humid.

"From what I hear, the climate conditions are pretty bad," she said. "The water didn't hit the books, which is a miracle. It damaged some parts of the library that were more like reading areas. But the problem is the mold that permeates the entire environment."

Centeno was recommended for the job by her former boss at the Library of Congress, who was contacted for help by the Mayaguez library staff a couple of weeks after the storm.

"She knew of my interest in Puerto Rican culture because I was born and raised there," said Centeno, who worked in collections care for the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2009, and assisted in disaster preparedness workshops that it organized in Puerto Rico.

Centeno talked with the two librarians in Mayaguez, who were able to put together a successful proposal for a disaster recovery grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The $30,000 emergency grant will pay for Centeno's travel and lodging, but she is volunteering her services and using vacation time to be away from her UI job.

The grant is also paying for supplies such as cleaning materials, vacuums with high-efficiency filters, dehumidifiers, respirators for staff who will be doing the cleaning, and acid-free boxes and storage materials.

'We're so vulnerable'

Centeno will lead a four-day program for library staff, teaching them how to assess the library's collections, clean them, put damaged materials in better storage containers and develop disaster preparedness plans.

"We're so vulnerable right now," she said. "There's less than a year to go to the next hurricane season."

Centeno will use a free online preservation assessment tool developed by the UI Library and will take three kits with supplies donated by the UI Library Friends.

She hopes to visit at least two other sites to provide preservation training and will offer a one-day workshop at the Mayaguez campus on preservation basics and disaster preparedness for other local institutions.

The extent of the damage to other libraries across Puerto Rico is still being determined, hampered by the lack of communication and power on the island. People are displaced, and in some cases, it's unclear if the library staff are still there or have been evacuated.

"It is so bad in some places that the staff has not been able to go in at all," she said.

In a recent blog, Evelyn Milagros Rodriguez, a librarian at the University of Puerto Rico's Humacao campus, said its hard-hit library remains mold-infested, and most of the furniture and computers will have to be replaced.

'A place to cope'

Centeno has been working with a National Heritage Responder team 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. She also suggested the Mayaguez campus lead an island-wide survey of libraries and cultural institutions.

"Libraries are a place of refuge for people during disasters," she said. "Libraries and museums give people a place to cope and get away from the stress."

They're also part of the island's heritage, she said. She had a hard time working with FEMA on the list of cultural institutions, as it was a "roster of the places that I went to visit when I was growing up." It included the Museo Casa del Libro, which holds 400 books printed before the 15th century and one of the first letters sent by explorer Christopher Columbus to Queen Isabella of Spain. Luckily, it survived with little damage, she said.

Centeno will also train staff at the Mayaguez library to look at overall preservation needs so they can create a plan and be able to apply for grants to help pay for it. She hopes it will become a pilot for other libraries on the island.

She plans to visit Puerto Rico twice a year to help and hopes the effort will encourage a discussion about the lessons learned from Maria.

"We need to be realistic but use this as an opportunity to improve things in the future," she said.