March 21, 2018

Preserving the Personal Past | Programs That Pop

In August 2016, the Greater Baton Rouge, LA, region was impacted by widespread and sustained flooding. On Friday, August 12, a slow-moving storm dropped 21 inches of rain, causing rivers and lakes to back up into municipal drainage systems. Homes that had previously never taken on water were inundated, leaving unprepared residents no choice but hastily to abandon their houses and possessions. Some areas took on more than eight feet of water. Major roads, including interstates, were submerged, making evacuation even more challenging. The flood waters took a number of days to subside, and many areas were inaccessible for a week or more. Over 140,000 homes were affected, a large majority of which were total losses.

As a result of the inability to access affected properties for a number of days or weeks, the extended power outages, and the overwhelming nature of flood damage, contents of homes had to be quickly sorted, with much of it discarded. Many people were forced to get rid of a majority of their personal archives, including a number of photographs. The materials salvaged were wet and/or in advanced states of mold development. In response to the crisis, the archival community in Baton Rouge began to educate the public through local media and library resources on how to halt degradation of flood-damaged items. As a result, some of these mementos were saved.

Photos courtesy of East Baton Rouge Parish Library


In September 2016, East Baton Rouge Parish Library (EBRPL) director Spencer Watts was contacted by representatives from Operation Photo Rescue (OPR). Founded by photojournalists Dave Ellis and Becky Sell in 2006 in response to Hurricane Katrina, this national organization is funded by donations and staffed by volunteers. Groups travel to communities nationwide that have been affected by natural disasters, and residents are encouraged to bring photos to be digitized using high-resolution cameras. The digital files are then restored as close to the original condition as possible using software such as Photoshop. The repaired images are printed and mailed at no expense to their owners in about six months to a year.

Delayed by the holidays and scheduling constraints of the volunteers, it wasn’t until spring 2017 that OPR was able to arrive in Baton Rouge. In April, the Special Collections Department of EBRPL at Goodwood hosted OPR for a two-day event designed to help victims of the 2016 floods recover damaged images. The library’s PR department launched a widespread media campaign in the days and weeks leading up to the event.

Each family was allowed to submit up to 20 photos for digitization. The primary content of images submitted were, unsurprisingly, portraits. The age of the photos was broad, ranging from the late 19th century to the mid- to late 1990s. The bulk of the items seemed to be from the 1970s and 1980s. Damage was primarily to the emulsion layer, though some items were disfigured by mold or physical damage. Many were still in frames or albums and had been stored in freezers since the flood.

The intake process was manned by library staff. Participants first filled out contact forms and then each image was assessed for suitability. In order to be successfully repaired, faces needed to have at least 50 percent of their features intact. If a reference photo was provided, that image could be used as well. The images were then sorted according to size, given to the OPR volunteers, and photographed.

Restoring memories

Response from the public was overwhelmingly positive. The event in Baton Rouge drew nearly 200 participants from the region. By the close of the event on April 22, more than 2,000 photographs had been duplicated. OPR president Margie Hayes estimates that the value of the event (including the volunteer hours for the repair work) will be close to $250,000. Hayes also noted that the event enjoyed a record-breaking turnout for her organization and hopes to return to Baton Rouge in the future.

Melissa Eastin is Head of Special Collections, East Baton Rouge Parish Library, LA

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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