Aug 052009
 

The entrance to the Derby Museum is just to the left of this gateIt’s typically an extremely rare occurrence when my worlds collide – oddly, this is the second time it has happened this year.

As many in the archival world know, I write about horse racing. And some in the horse racing world have a vague idea that I’m an archivist, but people in both spheres are probably a little unclear about what happens in the other one.

Here’s the short version for each group – first, for the archivists: horses run around a track and I comment on it. American horse racing has a long and storied history that could be more (and here I’m dropping in a professional buzzword) accessible – but more on that later. For the racing folk: archivists preserve documents, photographs, ephemera, etc. from the past so that people (and not just historians) can learn about (and from) that shared past. We also do a lot of complicated things with digitization and metadata – while the usual adjectives employed to describe our profession are ‘dusty’ or ‘musty,’ that’s only a small part of what we do.

Quite often, the archives (and the archivists who work there) are located in the basement – and that becomes a major issue in, say, a flood. The Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs just completed a renovation to their basement (where the storage and, as ever, archives are), including new shelving, when they were hit by a flash flood yesterday.

New shelving to an archivist is a precious commodity – we are rarely lucky enough to get shelving that is truly designed for archival use and it is difficult to raise money for it (as we have been doing in our archives for many a long day) because it’s not immediately apparent to someone outside the profession how much the right shelves help protect and maintain the collection.

But of course, even the best compact shelving cannot save the collections from the archivist’s second-greatest fear – water. At least one of the comments on the Courier-Journal article by Jennie Rees is wondering why the historical collections were stored in the basement, where they would be subject to flooding – and while that may seem unusual to the public, that’s essentially standard practice; except for the few institutions that have successfully implemented a visible storage project, cultural institutions cannot take up exhibit space with shelves and processing space – and you need a large open space for most useful shelving systems. Best practices may seek to get the archives and artifact storage above the flood line, but it rarely happens – indeed, when our archives moves into our new building, we will again be in the basement. (It may come as something of a surprise to some to discover that water damage happens even when collections are stored on higher levels – leaky pipes are a constant source of worry in the archival world).

Regardless of how the water gets in, archivists usually respond in just the way the Derby Museum staff did – by creating a human chain to get the materials and artifacts to higher ground. To add insult to injury, several museum employees lost their cars to the floodwaters while working to save the collections – but the good news is that it seems nothing was lost – just made very wet. Conserving wet materials is not as easy as just letting them dry off – the most effective approach is to have them freeze-dried and dealt with by a disaster mitigation firm. Obviously, that’s not cheap, but some organizations are lucky enough to have insurance to cover those costs – I don’t know whether that’s true of the Museum, but I hope they are able to get their collections back to the pre-flood state I enjoyed when visiting the Museum only last month.

Public libraries are rarely that fortunate – and the Louisville Public Library sustained very serious damage to both the physical plant and the books and computers (as did several of the branch libraries). In their case, a fund has been set up and donations are being accepted; keeping libraries running can be a challenge under the best circumstances, but the combination of a down economy and a major disaster is one that no library director wants to face – it’s a worthy cause.

I mentioned accessibility above and the lack of accessibility to horse racing history was, rather serendipitously, the topic of Teresa Genaro’s article in The Saratogian today (a note to the archivists reading – Teresa writes the rather wonderful Brooklyn Backstrech blog and was one of my co-bloggers for BelmontStakes.com this year). She noted how difficult it was to authoritatively establish basic facts not only from the more distant past, but even statistics from recent years – and as someone on both sides of that fence, I couldn’t agree more with her conclusions. American racing history is fairly widely dispersed – there’s the Keeneland Library, the currently-damp Kentucky Derby Museum, the International Museum of the Horse, the National Museum of Racing and the National Sporting Library and while there is some crossover, for the most part, each has a different collection policy and research goals.

That list does not even begin to take into account an individual racetrack’s holdings (and who knows what happens when they close – where are the records of Ak-Sar-Ben? Who will take on those of Hollywood Park?) including their film and video storage. Other sources of racing history, like the Daily Racing Form or Equibase, tend to be considerably more proprietary about their information. Unlike the aforementioned libraries and museums, making their information accessible is not the goal – and while that makes a certain amount of sense in their business models, it would be nice if they turned their data over to one of the aforementioned institutions or had a records management policy that involved making that data available online (with a preservation copy elsewhere) after a certain time period – I’d be happy to recommend a number of Kentucky-based archivists for the job.

It’s difficult enough for researchers to find the information they are looking for under normal conditions; dealing with a disaster like the flooding in Kentucky makes the archivist’s goal of preserving the past and providing access that much more difficult. The only potential upside is that the spotlight these cultural institutions unwittingly find themselves in brings in some much-needed funds for repairs and, hopefully, future improvements that serve both the collections and the public.

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