VIII. What Consideration Must Be Given to Court Records?


A. Why Is This an Important Issue?

The protection and availability of vital records, databases, and information systems needed to support essential functions under a broad array of disruptions is critical. Court personnel must identify all vital records, databases, and information systems necessary to sustain essential functions at alternate facilities. Examples of these records include orders of succession, delegations of authority, financial records, budgets, personnel, case files, property and procurement records, and archived records.

By taking the proper steps, courts can minimize the impact of disasters and thereby avoid the loss of records and the need to undergo recovery and salvage efforts. Needless to say, the availability of records is essential to court functions. The less damage caused to records by disasters, the less disruption will occur and the easier it will be to resume operations, even under less-than-ideal conditions. Most of these steps concern the storage conditions of records, as well as their formats and storage media. Courts should consider the recommendations offered below and determine which—if any—to implement. Factors influencing that determination include existing resources, conditions, and personnel, as well as costs.

B. Suggestions and Considerations

1. General Prevention and Preservation

• Conduct a building inspection to familiarize personnel with potential risks to records. Make any practical repairs or changes to mitigate the risks.

• Do not store records under plumbing or in areas that leak. Move them if possible; if not, cover them with polyethylene sheeting, or keep a roll of sheeting nearby and cover records during closing hours.

• Store records off the floor on sturdy shelves.

• Store records on an upper floor if the court’s facility is located in a flood-prone area.

• Maintain constant temperatures below 65ºF in dedicated storage areas, or 70ºF in work areas occupied by personnel. Maintain relative humidity levels of 40 to 50%.

• Install fans and commercial dehumidifiers if high humidity is a constant problem and cannot be controlled with an adequate HVAC system.

• Store records out of direct sunlight and preferably in archival-quality containers.

• Consult a preservation professional about implementing a pest-control program.

• Create digital backups of all paper-based records. Store backups off-site and out of the geographical area.

• Establish and maintain a schedule to back up electronic data, usually daily or weekly. Store backups off-site and out of the geographical area.

• Store electronic data of long-term importance in stable formats and on stable media. Store these media under environmental conditions conducive to long-term preservation.

• Establish a schedule to migrate (periodic updating of format and medium) electronic data of long-term importance.

2. Preparation

Preparedness means having a response plan in place before a disaster. Besides identifying response, recovery, and salvage procedures and techniques to be used by a specific court in the event of disaster, a response plan should include other preparations that make recovery more efficient.

• Take inventory of your records—Note record format and media. Create a shelf-list.

• Prioritize records—Identify vital records and label records according to priority.

• Alternate site planning—Have an alternate site where the work of the court can continue and where recovered records can be housed.

• Develop and keep updated a recovery and salvage plan—Address options for the recovery and salvage of damaged records and make recommendations based on existing resources, personnel, and facilities.

• Establish a recovery team—Members should be authorized to view confidential records, trained in salvage and recovery, and well versed in the court’s disaster response plan.

• Maintain an updated list of local emergency contacts.

• Maintain disaster response supplies.

• Maintain a list of response-and-recovery vendors and suppliers—Identify and establish contact with those vendors your court would be most likely to use in the event of disaster.

• Conduct an annual review—Any disaster response plan should be reviewed every year.


In many cases of natural disaster, there is advance warning. In these cases, personnel can take precautionary steps to protect records before disaster strikes.

• Cover storage areas with plastic sheeting to protect from water damage.
• Move records to higher shelving to protect from rising floodwater.
• Move vital records off-site.


3. Recovery and Salvage

Recovery and salvage is the work of restoring, reformatting, and otherwise saving damaged records. If your court does not have duplicate or backup copies of records, it will be essential to begin recovery efforts as soon as possible to ensure continued operations.

Assess the damage as soon as practicable to determine appropriate salvage-and-recovery efforts. The disaster recovery team must determine what is damaged, the volume of material damaged, and whether court personnel can handle recovery or if commercial vendors are needed. (See Appendix for a list of vendors.) Once the damage is assessed, appropriate recovery-and-salvage activities can proceed.

Recommendations for Recovery of Water-Damaged Paper Records

General guidelines:

• Paper will begin to distort immediately; mold can develop within 48 hours.
• Vital records and any rare or especially vulnerable items should be salvaged first.
• Damp books in warm humid areas are most subject to rapid mold growth. Properly stored and undisturbed archival files will be less quickly affected.
• Very wet materials, or those still under water, will not develop mold.
• Tightly shelved books will develop mold only on the outer edges; do not separate or open these items until the environment is stabilized.
• If books or loose records printed on coated stock are allowed to air-dry, their leaves will be permanently fused together.
• Do not open or attempt to close wet books, unpack wet file boxes, separate single sheets, or remove covers when materials are water soaked.
• Do not attempt to wash dirt from wet materials without a conservator’s direction.
• Work surfaces used for recovery should be covered with polyethylene sheeting.


Step One: Stabilize the environment to prevent mold growth


• If necessary, use plastic sheeting to protect against further water damage and move unaffected materials to higher locations to protect from flooding.
• Regulate temperature to 65ºF or below. Use air conditioning if necessary.
• Create maximum airflow and regulate relative humidity to 40 to 50%, if possible.
• Establish a salvage plan and brief personnel before removing damaged materials.
• If needed, seek the advice of specialists.


Step Two: Dry or stabilize damaged items as soon as possible (see below for packing guidelines used for shipment to vendors)


Stabilization by freezing

• If materials cannot be dried within 48 hours, freeze them until they can be dried.
• Freezing will not dry materials or kill mold spores (it will prevent their growth).
• Freezing is good to use if the value of materials needs to be assessed.
• Freezing increases the thickness of bound volumes, but will do no more damage.
• Once frozen, items should be stored at about 0ºF.
• Freeze rare or delicate items separately.

Drying procedures. Choosing a drying method depends on the extent of water damage, the types of materials affected, available facilities, time, and costs.


• Best for small numbers of damp books and records. Can result in badly distorted bindings and text blocks. Seldom used for drying bound coated paper.

• Time involved: several days to a few weeks.
• Maintain drying rooms at a constant temperature and use a dehumidifier to help reduce humidity.
• Stand books upright on the head (top) end. Do not fan pages; simply open the covers slightly and let stand while drying.
• Stand books on several sheets of absorbent paper or blank newsprint. Replace the paper as it absorbs water. Interleave blank newsprint between some pages.
• Change the interleaving frequently and take care not to distort the book by too much interleaving. As the book dries open it flat and add more interleaving.
• When books are almost dry, remove the interleaving, close the book gently, and continue drying it under a lightweight to minimize distortion.
• Loose documents can be spread out in small stacks on absorbent paper.
• Large quantities of documents can be frozen then thawed and air-dried in batches.

• Best used for large quantities of damp or moderately wet books, even those with coated paper, as long as it is begun before swelling and adhesion occur.
• Time involved: varies, depending on moisture, damage, and area affected.
• Items are left in place; commercial dehumidifiers are brought into the facility.
• Initiate within 24 hours of the damage (Buchanan).

Vacuum thermal drying

• Easier and more cost-effective than air-drying for large quantities. Wet or frozen items are placed in a vacuum chamber and dried above 32ºF.
• Time involved: 4-6 weeks per batch; only done in small batches.
• Contact a commercial vendor for more information.

Vacuum freeze-drying

• Especially useful for large quantities of very wet books and records, as well as for coated paper. Frozen items are placed in a vacuum chamber and dried below 32ºF. Ice vaporizes without melting, so no additional distortion occurs.
• Time involved: 6-10 weeks per batch; only done in small batches.
• Contact a commercial vendor for more information.

Guidelines for packing wet or damp materials in preparation for freezing and/or transportation to commercial drying facility


• Do not attempt to close open books swollen by water absorption.
• Use sturdy containers such as plastic milk crates. Place books vertically in a single layer with spines against the bottom of the box. Allow a small amount of space for expansion if materials are to be frozen. Refrigerated transport might be needed.
• For damp, loose papers, place newsprint between them, wrap them in packages less than two inches thick, and place them flat in milk crates. Do not wrap or interleave saturated papers.
• If materials are found packed closely together, do NOT space them out or separate them. Closely packed materials will not develop mold internally. Move drier materials to a controlled environment while storage areas are cleaned.

Recommendations for Recovery of Water-Damaged Microform Records


General guidelines for drying wet microform (microfilm and microfiche)


• Microforms are highly susceptible to water damage.
• Do not allow to dry in rolls or enclosures; unroll microfilm.
• Rinse under a gentle stream of clean water.
• Wet microfilm or microfiche should be air-dried and then reprocessed.
• Freezing or freeze-drying is not recommended.
• If immediate drying is not possible, keep submerged in clean water inside a container lined with plastic garbage bags for up to 48 hours.

Recommendations for Recovery of Water-Damaged Photographs (NEDCC leaflet 8; UT Manual; SC leaflet)

Water can cause extensive and irreversible damage to some types of photographs; others can stay immersed as much as a day with no damage. To be safe and to prevent mold growth, dry or stabilize wet photographs as soon as possible.

General guidelines for stabilizing and drying wet photographs

• Prints should be salvaged first.
• Air-dry or freeze as soon as possible.
• Rinse dirt with gentle stream of water or immersion with gentle agitation.
• If necessary, pack immersed in clean water in plastic bags inside boxes.
• Do not touch with bare hands.
If personnel, space, and time permit, photos should be air-dried

• Separate from enclosures or frames and each other. If stuck together or adhered to glass, soak and separate, or set aside for freezing and consultation with a conservator.
• Allow excess water to drain.
• Spread photos out, face up, laying them flat on an absorbent material such as blotters, unprinted newsprint, paper towels, or a clean cloth.
• Maintain good airflow. Fans will speed drying and minimize the risk of mold growth.
• Dry negatives vertically. Hang on a line with plastic clips placed at the edges.


Only freeze photographs if air-drying is not possible or if they are stuck together; the formation of ice crystals might leave marks on the film. Consult a conservator.
• Wrap or interleave photos (or groups of adhered photos) with waxed paper or a nonwoven polyester material (Mylar) before freezing.
• Frozen photos are best dried by thawing, followed by air-drying. As a stack of adhered photos thaws, individual photos can be carefully peeled from the groups and placed face up on a clean absorbent surface to dry.
• Rinse slides and dip in a commercial slide cleaner product and air-dry; hang on a line or prop on edge.
• Remove slides from frames for drying and then remount.

Recommendations for Recovery of Water-Damaged Digital/Electronic Media

Magnetic tapes

• Do not attempt to play back wet tapes.
• Do not freeze.
• Do not touch tape with bare hands.
• Immediately and gently rinse tapes soaked by dirty water using only distilled water.
• Dry within 48 hours. Otherwise, tapes can stay submerged for several days. Delay in recovery is likely to destroy some tapes.
• Air-drying is preferable. Expose tapes to an environment of cool, dry air.
• Remove paper inserts and wet cardboard to reduce the possibility of mold growth.
• If shipping is necessary, keep submerged in plastic bags inside crates.
Floppy disks
• Do not freeze.
• Do not touch disk surface with bare hands.
• Air-dry immediately: disassemble case, wash disk gently in distilled water, air-dry, place in new case, and copy data onto new disk.
• If immediate drying is not possible, submerge in plastic bags or tubs of distilled water.
Compact discs
• Air-dry as soon as possible.
• Transfer data onto new discs.

Audio- and videotapes
• Do not unwind tapes or remove from reels or spools.
• Rinse with distilled water.
• Air-dry by supporting cassettes or reels vertically or lying on sheets of clean blotter paper. Use fans to keep air moving without blowing directly on items.
• Dehumidify the area; bring relative humidity down to 50%.

Recommendations for Recovery from Mold

General guidelines for all records

• Do not turn up the heat. This will encourage mold growth.
• Discover what is causing mold growth (e.g., standing water and/or high temperature and humidity), and modify the environment (e.g., remove standing water, circulate air with fans, reduce relative humidity to 40-50% and temperature to less than 65ºF).
• Isolate moldy items in a clean area of regulated humidity. Shut off HVAC system.
• Make sure that anyone working with moldy items wears masks or respirators and gloves.
• For large outbreaks, consult a conservator or commercial recovery company.
• Freezing or drying items (in regulated environment) will cause mold to go dormant, so that it appears dry and powdery instead of soft and fuzzy.
• Once mold is dormant, clean the affected items. (Do not try to clean active mold yourself; contact a professional conservator.) Vacuum with a HEPA filter or wet-dry vac with a fungicide solution in the tank. A brush attachment covered with cheesecloth can be used for fragile items. A soft brush also works—should be done outside and gently so as not to permanently embed mold into the surface.

Recommendations for Recovery from Fire and Smoke Damage


Obviously, fire and heat can completely destroy records or damage them so extensively as to make them unusable or unrecoverable. The most effective approach, therefore, is to store records in fireproof cabinets or vaults, or to store duplicate copies (in whatever format) off-site. In some cases, however, the damage might be minor, and records can be salvaged, reformatted, or both. Surface soot and/or ash can be removed with gentle brushing, and singed or brittle paper or photographic prints can be photocopied or digitally scanned. More extensive damage caused by heat or smoke to any format or medium should be addressed under the direction of a conservator or other recovery specialist.

Ironically, though, one of the biggest dangers to records in the event of fire is damage caused by water used to extinguish the fire. Courts should consider installing fire suppression systems that do not use water or other liquids.