What is a salvage trailer? Sally Kilby explains all...

As a final year student in the Books and Library Materials Conservation Studies course at West Dean, my usual focus is upon 'book and paper materials'. However, last term I was fortunate to work with the West Dean Collections team as they kitted out their new 'salvage trailer'. The trailer is designed to be a portable unit that can be parked in close proximity to the house during a major disaster even when the house, the collection and the materials stored within it cannot be accessed.

The salvage trailer is the first port of call for responding firefighters who may require specific tools and equipment, and would subsequently function as a 'HQ' during the following salvage operation. It contains safety gear, materials to assist with safely removing, treating and storing collection items, and guidelines to assist with responding to a range of disasters from floods to fires and everything in-between.

Prior to my studies at West Dean, I trained as a paper conservator and am employed as such at the National Library of Australia (NLA). Shortly before my departure for West Dean in September last year, I spent two weeks tracking down all 31 'disaster bins' scattered throughout the NLA, restocking and reassessing their contents for use in all kinds of emergencies - including mould outbreaks, pest infestations and leaking roofs.

And so, when the opportunity to kit out a salvage trailer at West Dean arose, I jumped at the chance! It was a brilliant opportunity to expand my knowledge and experience of disaster response planning, and to be able to understand the complexities that come with planning for the salvage of a historic house.

Working with Emma, West Dean's Collections Manager and Angie, the Assistant House Steward, on this project meant that I was able to absorb their knowledge regarding the trickier aspects of a historic house salvage operation - for example, how do you get paintings off a wall? What about heavy sculptures in the hallways? What tools and materials are you likely to need first, and how do you secure them in a trailer that is designed to be moved around a property?

We were able to exchange ideas and share previous experiences; as someone who has spent two weeks discovering that large rolls of duct tape in emergency stores have a tendency to degrade and melt in high temperatures, (e.g. an Australian storeroom or a disaster trailer parked in a sunny carpark), I was able to very strongly recommend that we isolate all of the duct tape in the trailer inside ziplock bags, and also that we buy wind-up torches to prevent battery-powered torches from leaking battery fluid over time.

I also compiled a 'grab sheet' - which is essentially a double-sided A3 printout that would be handed to salvage workers and volunteers to guide them when retrieving and treating salvaged collection items. I was able to tailor this information sheet to address the particular material requirements of the Edward James Foundation collection.

Working on the salvage trailer project was a brilliant opportunity to further develop my own knowledge of disaster planning and how to salvage materials beyond books and paper - although I hope that it is never put to the test!!