Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Archival Adaptation to Climate Change

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Archival Adaptation to Climate Change

Article excerpt

Introduction

According to the National Climate Assessment, the United States will in future years likely experience an increasing number of climate-change related trends that will influence residential patterns, agriculture, natural resources, and future investments in infrastructure. Many of these changes will be due to increasingly severe weather and rising sea levels that will pose significant dangers to most of the population in the country (USGCCRP, 2014). Climate change is one of the greatest contemporary threats to archival repositories and the records in their custody. Increasingly severe disasters like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires pose immediate dangers. At best, archives affected by such events may be able to evacuate certain holdings, to move collections to safer parts of buildings, or to salvage materials using disaster-response teams. At worst, a disaster may result in total loss, with collections of records or even a repository's entire holdings damaged or lost beyond recovery. Longer-term trends such as human migration and rising sea level may necessitate decisions concerning the geographic relocation of archival records.

Despite these mounting threats, the American archival profession has to date not demonstrated significant interest in addressing the likely impacts of climate change on archival repositories, the livelihoods of archivists working in vulnerable locations, and the public's ability to access vital records threatened by severe weather. To the extent that risks to archival holdings have been considered, it has primarily been through the lens of disaster planning and management, which emphasizes emergency response, but does not address long-term adaptation for repositories in geographically vulnerable areas (Gordon-Clark & Shurville, 2010). However, a significant body of literature has examined the effects of climate change on long-term viability of other areas of cultural heritage, such as monuments and architecture (Holtz et al. 2014; UCS, 2014; O'Brien et al. 2015). This work has significant value for archivists who are only beginning to consider similar questions.

As archivists adapt to meet the challenges of climate change, they can draw inspiration from previous shifts in theory and practice. Revising traditional archival methods to meet contemporary challenges is familiar to most practitioners. Archivists have responded to the processing demands associated with increasingly large collections of modern paper and electronic records by embracing new processing and cataloging practices that recognize limited institutional resources. These techniques have been developed in recent decades to help archivists make more records available to users. This may be construed as a sustainability response, albeit from a labor and resource-allocation perspective, rather than an environmental one. Embedding responses to climate change in long-term planning for stewardship of records is a path toward developing a professional culture of sustainability and resiliency. Current archival practice emphasizes access for researchers in the foreseeable future, but overlooks major shocks outside the control of archivists.

Archivists will have to meet the challenges of climate change on two fronts: interim protections and long-term planning. Interim protections, such as institutional disaster-response plans and choices about processing materials, are easier to implement since this work can be done at the local level and is based on existing guidance. Future planning for these issues is more fraught, as long-term archival adaptation to climate change calls for more research and coordinated efforts between archives and parent organizations, as well as among archivists across the profession. Decisions on interim protections and long-term planning must also be worked through within the local contexts of individual repositories (e.g., archives that are part of a larger organization, such as a university, government agency, or corporation), within larger emergency response and adaptation frameworks at state and federal levels, as well as across the archival profession. …

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