School of Information hopes to save history lost by wildfires

Allison Harris

A soaked book rested on a table with plain paper towels between every few pages to dry it. Nearby, students and community members removed soot from burned documents with a soft brush and dry rubber sponge.

These demonstrations were part of a workshop the School of Information hosted Sunday to teach volunteers how to salvage documents and potentially help people affected by the wildfires in Central Texas.

School of Information lecturer Karen Pavelka organized the workshop and said the school felt compelled to assist wildfire victims by holding its first public workshop.

“We have faculty who have a lot of experience with disaster preparedness, disaster planning and disaster salvage,” Pavelka said. “If people have wet documents or wet heirlooms or things that are very fragile, we know how to handle them as safely as possible, and we want to help however we can.”

Pavelka led the workshop with Rebecca Elder, adjunct assistant professor in the School of Information, and Virginia Luehrsen, information studies graduate student.

Luehrsen advised volunteers to work in teams to prevent becoming overwhelmed or overworked.

“If you’re with a team, the nice thing is that you can say, ‘Okay, I need a little time out,’ and somebody else can step in and work with that family,” she said. “The family doesn’t feel abandoned, and you don’t feel that all the pressure is on you.”

Jane Bost, associate director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center, said losing a home or important personal possessions to a fire is one of the most traumatic and stress-inducing experiences a person can have.

“It totally goes against what you could expect or would be reasonable because it’s such a rare kind of loss,” Bost said. “They have a loss of sense of control of their lives, and it’s almost hard to imagine.”

Bost said the ability to salvage important personal items from the wildfires could comfort people by giving them a connection to the time before the fire.

“That could help people just to have something, some kind of object that was valued in their lives that’s associated with positive memories,” she said.

Bost advised those affected by the wildfires to reach out for help. She also suggested positive distraction activities and focusing on daily goals to manage stress.

“It’s hard to do, but I think it’s really important to set the goals for ‘What do I get through for today? What can I accomplish for today?’ not trying to figure it all out, because it can be very, very overwhelming,” she said.

Information studies graduate student Carlos Duarte said he looks forward to using the knowledge he gained in the workshop to help people affected by the recent wildfires.

“I think a lot of people assume once something’s wet or smoke damaged, they have to just throw it away,” Duarte said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to convince them otherwise.”