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.

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