Not quite a fire

While not a disaster this incident demonstrated the importance of practicing disaster responses and recovery strategies, rather than accepting training at face value and not asking questions.

While on my student placement I joined my new team at a specialist subject library full of enthusiasm at the same time as a colleague who had just landed her first professional role. We took part in a lot of training and orientation sessions together. My interest and knowledge in the subject matter meant I could help my colleague understand some of the inevitable jargon; while her recent qualification meant she could help me out with applying theory to practice. All told and excellent start.

The day came when all the experienced members of the team were unavoidably out of office leaving the library service in our hands for the day. We were confident, excited, determined to demonstrate that we could be trusted with the responsibility. Unfortunately my colleague also chose that day to make toast at work for the first time in our little kitchen. The kitchen fire detector turned out to be a heat sensor not a smoke sensor with predictable consequences.

Our library fire system was linked with the medical centre next door leading to the whole med centre being evacuated. However, we knew it was a false alarm so rather than running outside I tried to contact the fire service to explain that we didn’t need a full response, just someone to switch the alarm off. Attempts to contact the fire service via a non-emergency number became increasingly desperate and we gradually realized that the library fire alarm wasn’t automatically connected to the Fire Service as we’d been told; so no one was coming. We had to contact someone. I decided a lateral approach was called for and called the onsite Police service for advice. A very calm Inspector assured me that he would arrange for the fire service to sort the problem out for me and that he knew who to call. I made it clear this was a false alarm not wanting to divert vital resources from any potential “real” situation.

Two fire engines later, a lot of people bustling about with breathing apparatus the building was declared safe, the alarm finally switched off and the building handed back to two very embarrassed Library Assistants.

So, when you get the fire tour of your new place of work don’t take it at face value. We should have asked:

1 How do you know the alarm is connected to the fire service automatically? If there had been a real fire no one would have called the fire service because we all thought the alarm was connected to the fire brigade. Procedures were changed to say “call emergency services”

2 Have response times been tested as well as the function of the alarm?

3 Where are sensors located, are they appropriate for the area they are in?

4 I had called the onsite emergency services number but was shocked when instead of speaking to our friendly local switchboard operator I received the standard “Emergency services, which service do you require?” response that you’d get from a 999 call. So I put the phone down not wanting to call external emergency services to an onsite problem. (We had been warned in our orientation not to call 999 but to call onsite services first and let them assess the need for external help. We weren’t warned that the internal emergency number switchboard response mimicked the 999 call handler leading to my confusion).

So when you get your fire evacuation orientation training at work – Don’t assume – Check!!

 My esteemed colleague decided not to eat the by now cold toast and went to the shop for a belated sandwich. The toaster “bought it”.


A Song of Fire and Water

Upon informing family, friends and colleagues of my decision to embark upon a career in archives I received a variety of questions both pertinent (what does an archivist do?) and disparaging (are you sure you own enough cardigans?). An enquiry which I did not receive, and one which I had not considered much myself, was what does an archivist do when disaster strikes? I suppose in my naivety I had been taken in by the illusion of archival permanence; archive centres, like the collections they hold, seem stable, secure, eternal. Such a delusion is only strengthened when one is confronted either by the grand Victorian edifices or imposing modern repositories in which so many of our nation’s records are housed. My own disaster-free experience working at a volunteer-run community archive in Otley, West Yorkshire merely reinforced my misconceptions.

However, in little over a week the Scottish Council on Archives is meeting in Edinburgh for the conference ‘Fire in the Archives: Experiences Shared, Lessons Learned’. Whilst one speaker is to discuss the conflagration at the Glasgow School of Art another explores the aftermath of the fire at the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. It is this latter example, of which I was largely ignorant, that caught my eye. In the early afternoon of 26 April 2013 two workmen making repairs to the roof of Building 2 using a blowtorch accidentally ignited the wood and bitumen impregnated fibreboard underneath the roof’s external cladding. Despite staff efforts to douse the fire the dryness of the materials accelerated the spread of the blaze which ultimately required eight fire engine crews and four hours to contain. By then a thirty metre long section of the roof had been destroyed. Although destructive to the fabric of the building, the chief damage to the collections ironically came from the use of water to extinguish the fire, which leaked through the top six floors. Amongst the material completely destroyed by water damage were three boxes of nineteenth-century records relating to the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carmarthen as well as papers associated with the Wales Green Party, Welsh football, and the Acen Company archives.

Yet it could have been so much worse. The National Library of Wales contains six million books, one million photographs, 30,000 manuscripts as well as a plethora of ephemera including maps, works of art, and films, many of which contribute to the collective memory and heritage of Wales; the Library is home to material such as the Welsh Literature Archive and the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales. One positive was that the top floor most affected was not a storage area but an office space where staff processed new acquisitions and inspected existing collections. Moreover, as the Library’s press releases emphasised, the staff had been well trained and successfully carried out the Library Emergency Plan by prioritising and removing the most valuable items once allowed back into the building and by covering the shelves and furniture in plastic sheeting to minimise water damage. Through pre-arranged agreements the worst affected items were sent to the Library’s in-house conservation unit whilst 140 crates of damaged material were sent to the document restoration specialists Harwell’s of Oxford to be freeze-dried. Furthermore the element which made this fire so potentially disastrous, the Library’s extensive holdings of national importance, also ensured that the Library received influential assistance. From its privileged position as a copyright library holding the largest collection of books in Wales it was assured of political and financial support; the Welsh Culture Minister at the time, John Griffiths, inspected the damage for himself and announced that the Welsh Government was working closely with the Library and promised grants to help overcome the £5 million cost of repairs.

I suppose the message to take from this is that whilst disasters can and do strike archive centres of any size or stature, the damage can be minimised by having a high level of financial and political clout and a workforce who are well drilled in emergency contingency plans, regardless of whether or not they wear cardigans.

Every flood Has a Silver Lining? The Florence Flood of 1966

by Allie Newman

Florence, Italy has been known as a cultural center for centuries, earning such grand attributes as “The Athens of the Middle Ages” and “The Birthplace of the Renaissance”. Once the home of the affluent and powerful Medici family, and later the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the public and private collections of the city were home to some of the world’s most precious artworks, books, and records. The city also fostered the establishment and growth of world-renowned institutions such as the Uffizi, the Archives of the Opera del Duomo, and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale. Unfortunately, in spite of all of its positives, Florence had one very large strike against it: it was complacent.

The River Arno, which runs through the heart of the city, burst its banks in 1557, causing a great deal of damage as well as loss of life. This was before the beginning of the construction of the Uffizi and less than 100 years after the rise of the Medici family, so it was considered to be an issue of the past- after 409 years, the destructive nature of the Arno had largely been forgotten. However, in November 1966, Florence became quickly and harshly reacquainted with the river’s bad side. After a period of heavy rain, flood waters rushed through the city in the early hours of the morning, ultimately rising to 22 feet in some areas. The water was damaging enough, but the floodwaters also carried with them oil and sewage, which added a new dimension of contamination.

1. Flood water in the Piazza del Duomo

When the water receded, it left behind a recovery project the likes of which the world had never seen. Tragically, tens of thousands of artworks, books, and records were completely destroyed, with no hope of recovery. Tens of millions of others were severely damaged, and needed immediate attention in order to stop active degradation, particularly in the badly affected Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale. Into this grim situation descended hundreds of volunteers willing to assist in any way they could, as well as a host of expert conservators. Figures that would go on to lead the field of book conservation, such as Christopher Clarkson and Nicholas Pickwoad, helped to develop and implement some of the first batch paper conservation at the Biblioteca, including mass deacidification and mass drying. In addition, a nine step system was developed in order to give books and papers the treatment they required as quickly as possible.

2. Mass paper drying in the Biblioteca

The flood, while devastating, caused somewhat of a Renaissance of conservation not only in Florence but throughout the world. Institutions, horrified at the destruction in Florence, rushed to hire conservators and construct detailed disaster plans. The flood and recovery efforts became the fodder for thousands of field-advancing journal articles and lectures, and damaged books allowed binding structures and materials to be studied in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. Pickwoad refers to the flood as “the birth of modern book conservation and bibliography,” and historians tend to agree with him. It is difficult to view a flood or any other disaster as anything but terrible and destructive, but in fact they can provide amazing opportunities for the development of skills and the improvement of the field as a whole.

The need for better funding for archives!

Back at the beginning of this year a story popped up on sky news as I was eating my porridge one morning and it really shocked me! A huge fire at the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences in Moscow!

Whilst doing the IMP course I had been reading up on the cost vs benefits of digitisation and had just completed a module where we looked at disaster planning so I was immediately interested and I just felt for the archivist in charge. The fire was likened to a ‘cultural Chernobyl’. Some 15% of the archives collection was thought to be lost, not just from fire but also from the water used to extinguish the flames. The roof caved in putting the rest of the archives at risk.

It made me think how I would feel if I were the archivist in charge. How would I respond? The loss would have such an effect on the country, the community, researchers and future users. Can you imagine such a disaster befalling the National Archives here in the UK? What treasures would be lost to the nation? What’s in our archives is often bound up with how we see ourselves as a nation. The loss would have no price. All of these thoughts raced through my mind at the time, along with ‘did they digitise these vital records?’ The answer seems to be sadly no. One poster from the web site below states that he had visited the archives on many occasions and it was a disaster waiting to happen, funding was a big problem and what little money there was sadly was not used to digitise these rare and unique documents.


As I said before, I thought about how I would respond, but how did the archive actually respond? Well, it’s seems like that is a second disaster. The Russian government has done very little to help. The archivists set up a Facebook page and volunteers (mostly un-trained) came in to help with the clean up. Fortunately they have managed to save about one million documents. But it has raised ‘ grave questions about the commitment of today’s Russian government to the funding of its archives and libraries’, indeed ‘ordinary people have stepped into the vacuum.’ Young people do not want to work in the profession as wages are so low, most employees are above pension age.

See :

There were also concerns for the card catalogue. Gelb Albert, a scholar specialising in Soviet-era history stated that “no matter how little damage is done to an archive or library itself, if the catalogue is destroyed, the institution is paralysed for years”. Luckily it survived the flames which he describes as ‘a miracle’.

But it should never have come to this. Proper safety measures should have been in place and rare documents should have been digitised. The primary problem seems to be funding and it is one which many archives face and unfortunately this one paid the ultimate price.

California Telephone Museum: Completely Destroyed in 2015 Wildfire

I racked my brain to think of something I could post about in regards to a personal situation that had occurred, but other than my friend and my dad both receiving the wrong prescriptions on various occasions there was little else I could think about that would be able to fill a whole blog post. So when this story landed in my inbox at the beginning of last week I was pretty pleased! (Obviously not about the fact the whole museum was burnt to the ground – but because it meant I had something to write about!)

The JKL Museum before the fire.

The John K. La Rue (JKL) Museum of Telephony (also known as the American Museum of Telephony) was located near the town of San Andreas in California and along with surrounding residences was completely destroyed by fire on September 10th 2015. Due to this being such a recent even there is little known if anything at all has survived, although the JKL Museum’s blog states that it is unlikely as firefighters informed workers that the whole museum had ‘burned to the ground’.

The museum was dedicated the preserving the history of various telephones and their history and it is said to have contained thousands of telephones, telephone switching boards along with other telephone equipment, books and catalogues from the late 1800s to the present day.

Six days after it had burned down fire crews were still at the scene as it was still smoking. A representative from the museum also issued a blog post stating that they intended to rebuild the museum but of course it would take much time and planning and that they were hoping to replace much of the unique trove of telephones that they had unfortunately lost.

The museum also maintained an archives library containing catalogs, brochures, and telephone company publications,all of which have been destroyed in the fire, some of which will be very hard if at all possible to replace.

Volunteers are currently being gathered in order to help with the rebuilding of the collection and to help find anything that is not completely ruined (although unlikely). However, the mangers of the museum have stated that they most certainly will rebuild, so I guess we need to watch this space and see how they do this! Fingers crossed it doesn’t take too long.

All photographs courtesy of JKL Museum website -> JKL Museum

Information gathered from below sources:
Article from the Observer
Article from
JKL Museum Blog
Article from NetworkWorld

Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986

Happily, any personal experience I’ve had with records or archives or libraries has—thus far— been free and clear of disaster. So I did some research and found an instance of catastrophe at a library on my native West Coast of the United States.

On April 29, 1986, the Los Angeles Central Library, the third-largest public library in the U.S., caught fire on the fifth floor. (It was later determined to be arson—one librarian who worked there at the time theorized that the arsonist set the fire in order to impress people by putting it out. I’m not totally sure where this idea comes from, but it’s equal parts amusing and horrifying.) The library had a massive collection– only 20% of it was available to the public. There were endless shelves stacked all the way to the top with extremely flammable books, periodicals, maps, papers, the list goes on.

And so the fire quickly spread– and, because of the “dense design” of the building, became hotter and hotter, temperatures eventually going over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The surfaces were so hot that when water was doused into the building, it would boil. Again, the design of the building, tall and thick, meant there wasn’t proper ventilation to put out the fire, so firefighters had to use jackhammers to break through the concrete and create airflow. It took more than 350 firefighters and nearly eight hours to eventually put out the fire.

20% of the library’s materials were destroyed—400,000 volumes. 700,000 volumes were damaged by the water from the hoses, and all the remaining books suffered smoke damage. Completely lost were “the largest and oldest collection of patents in the American West and one of America’s largest collections of cook books.”

Putting the library and its collections back together was quite a task. Volunteers came in for two weeks to gather waterlogged books that were to be sent to Texas for freeze drying. They renovated and rebuilt the library, but, as librarian Glen Creason said, “The old idea of Central as a research library like the great New York Public Library sort of crumbled away… It is still very much a great library, just not as great as it could have been.”

Photos from the Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Information gathered from the following articles:

The Dublin Public Record Office Fire: Catastrophe and Comebacks

Two years ago I had the privilege of studying in Ireland at Trinity College Dublin. While pursuing my History degree I grew interested in the physical remnants of the past and in the field of archives more generally. This curiosity was kindled through the many hours I spent in the imposing, highly Victorian, reading rooms of the National Library on Kildare Street. There I read records as disparate as eighteenth century recipe books and twentieth century war diaries.

However I soon came to understand that in Dublin history is a concern that extends beyond the cloistered environments of libraries and archives, it resonates with the city’s people. The year 2013 for example saw extensive public commemorations of the 1913 ‘Lock-Out’, perhaps Ireland’s most famous industrial struggle. Through marches, art-works and theatrical performances, residents celebrated the centenary of this vital episode in the capital’s history. Moreover, 2013 could be viewed as a ‘warm up’ for future historical commemorations, as in coming years events like the Easter Rising of 1916 and the Irish Civil War will all receive significant and sincere contemplation.

It was during the Irish of Civil War of 1922 – 23 that the violent course of history came to clash with the sheltered environments of archives. During this upheaval the Public Record Office, housed in the grounds of the Four Courts building, Ireland’s legal epicentre, was destroyed in dramatic circumstances. The P.R.O had been based at Four Courts, on the banks of the River Liffey since 1867 and was a uniquely designed repository.

However in April 1922, the site was occupied by Republican forces opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the document which established the Irish Free State and abandoned the goal of a united Ireland. Over the following weeks the P.R.O was used to hold supplies including explosives. Several months of intense fighting followed, the site being repeatedly shelled by the Provisional Government.

On June 30th 1922, an explosion and resulting fire caused the loss of thousands of documents, some dating back as early as the high middle ages. The items destroyed ranged from legal proceedings to genealogical records, from ecclesiastical documents to wills and amounted to “most of the records of English governance in Ireland stretching back to the thirteenth century.”

The Four Courts Bombardment (1922) ©RTE Stills Library
The Four Courts Bombardment (1922)
©RTE Stills Library

The gravity of the loss was immediately apparent to contemporaries in Dublin. An article in the Irish Times from July lamented that these “precious records” had been “devoured by flames ” and thus could be of no use to future historians .
Perhaps the best account of the tragedy is supplied by Ernie O’Malley, an anti-treaty I.R.A officer who was based at Four Courts during the Civil War. Known retrospectively as the ‘I.R.A Intellectual’ , O’Malley documented his experiences in three works of poetic autobiographical prose. It was in the second of these texts ‘The Singing Flame’ that O’Malley recounted the story of the P.R.O explosion, writing that “the yard was littered with chunks of masonry and smouldering records; pieces of white paper were gyrating in the upper air like seagulls”. O’Malley beautifully captured the melancholy of the scene, surrounded by “half burnt broken volumes”, with “leaves of white paper” being carried up into the air. Supposedly, calls from archivists for the public to return found portions of documents were largely ignored, as scraps were kept as souvenirs.

If the story were to end here, it would amount to another bleak example of violence and warfare eroding the vestiges of history, whether deliberately or accidentally; a sad but familiar narrative which continues up to this day with the horrific destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra by ISIL forces.

However, recent events provide a more positive conclusion, highlighting the ability of archivists and historians to adapt to adverse circumstances. The research group CIRCLE, based at Trinity College and headed by several historians, has endeavoured over the past forty years to reconstruct material lost in the 1922 fire. Using sources from the early 1800s, these academics have managed to compile and digitise a wealth of material relating to the legal and monarchical realm of Medieval Ireland, much of which is available to view for free through the CIRCLE website.

Thus it is shown that scholarship and the devotion of resources to archival professionals, even the greatest of tragedies can provide opportunities for scholarly exploration and ultimately a greater insight into the past.