American Archives and Climate Change: Risks and Adaptation


Little research and public attention has been paid to climate risks to the cultural heritage that is stored in libraries and archives. Cultural heritage in libraries and archives includes both tangible things like documents, paintings and museum objects and intangible things like folklore, customs and traditional knowledge. This despite a troubling record of library and archive collection losses during extreme weather events, well-recognized climate risks to other elements of cultural heritage (like archeological sites, historic buildings and world heritage sites), and a well-accepted scientific understanding that climate risks will likely change in the future.

This project is the first to our knowledge to investigate the spatial variability of climate risks to libraries and archives and detail how this may change in the future under expected climate change. We used a database of 1,232 library and archive locations in combination with the best available spatial data describing: 1) inland surface water flooding; 2) temperature and precipitation change; 3) sea-level rise; and 4) oceanic storm surge associated with hurricanes.

The results offer the library and archive communities in the U.S. a first look at the specific current and expected future climate risks to their facilities and collections of cultural heritage. Our hope is that this study raises awareness of climate risks to libraries and archives and provides the basis for institutional and regional climate adaptation planning.


We found that nearly every library and archive that we examined should expect the climate conditions under which they currently operate to change over the course of roughly the next century.

Using a combined metric of risk, we found 13 (1%) of library and archive locations to be at high climate risk and 122 (10%) of locations to be at medium or higher risk.

This included:

  • 30 locations (2.4%) that are currently within a 500-year floodplain
  • 92 locations (7.5%) that may experience a 10-degree or greater annual temperature change by 2100 that would increase operating costs associated with indoor environmental controls
  • 93 locations (7.5%) that may receive an additional 10″ of rain annually over current levels that could lead to surface flooding
  • 18 coastal locations (1.5%) that would likely be inundated by 1.8-meter sea level rise
  • 84 coastal locations (6.5%) that would likely be inundated by a current category 4 storm surge event if it were a “direct hit” to their coastline
  • 219 coastal locations (17.7%) were found to be at some risk of inundation from the combined effects of future sea-level rise and storm surge

Libraries and archives preserve important parts of our cultural heritage that may be at risk from current and future weather and climate. Detailed knowledge of local conditions is required for library and archive climate adaptation planning. This study provides a first-step in examining the climate risks to libraries and archives in the continental U.S. and we hope that it stimulates further study in this region and internationally.


Ben Goldman, Nathan Piekielek, Tara Mazurczyk, Eira Tansey (University of Cincinnati)

Publications and Presentations

Mazurczyk, Piekielek, Tansey and Goldman (2018). American archives and climate change: Risks and adaptation. Climate Risk Management, 20:111-125.

Mazurczyk, Goldman, Piekielek and Tansey. (2017). Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene. New York, NY.

Goldman and Piekielek. (2017). Penn State University Libraries Research Colloquium. University Park, PA.

Tansey and Goldman. (2016). Society of American Archivists Annual Conference. Atlanta, GA.

Tansey, E. (2015). Archival adaptation to climate change. Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 11(2), 45-56.


Funding for this project was provided by the Penn State University Libraries Graduate Research Assistantship Program and the Sally W. Kalin Early Career Librarianship for Technological Innovation. We would also like to recognize Bruce Washburn, who assisted in gathering the location data for U.S. archival repositories from WorldCat’s ArchiveGrid.