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.
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.