Contents - Previous - Next


1. Introduction

1.1 Water: the ubiquitous hazard

The primary enemies of documents housed in archives and libraries have always been fire and-water, each an agent of a specific type of destruction. Although fires, with their spectacular display and awesome finality, are thought to be the predominate cause of destruction, in reviewing the literature on disasters in archives and libraries, the majority appears to be the result of water. In a fire-gutted building the destroyed holdings may have to be written off. On the other hand, although water can, under certain conditions, be Just as destructive the materials can be saved if appropriate action is taken.

Of the many recorded reports on disasters where water used to extinguish a fire did as much or more damage than the fire, there are two striking examples. The first was witnessed by Schmelzer (1), librarian of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. In November 1966 a fire broke out in one of the top floors of the ten story building. AS a result some 70,000 books were practically burned to ashes. However, because of the open multitiered stack structure of the library, the water used to extinguish the fire poured down seven floors and damaged the remaining 150,000 volumes.

The second case, reported by Stender and Walker (2), involved one of the largest archives known: The National Personnel Records Office in South St. Louis, Missouri, which contains millions of individual records of former federal government employees, both military and civilian, in a six story building of solid concrete. In July 1963 a fire broke out on the sixth floor. Through a continuous flood of water, the firemen were successful in confining the fire to that level. But after the fire was extinguished, all Fix levels of the center had several inches of water on the floor. Water flowed freely through the building, especially through utility areaways and points where internal pipes ran through the floor. Broken water lines on the sixth floor added to the flood conditions. Some 10,000 cubic feet (280 cubic meters) of water-damaged records were removed for treatment from the lower flooded floors along with the several thousands of cubic feet or records from the sixth floor that suffered both fire and water-damage.

Although the water used to extinguish a fire can wreak destruction greater than the fire, this source of misplaced water is, fortunately, not too occasional thanks to the construction of fire-proof buildings and professional firefighters (3). On the other hand, there are many other sources of water that constitute a potential hazard to collections in archives and libraries. One source can be attributed to nature; tornados, hurricanes, floods, rainstorms, snow. The other to man: leaks in water supply or drainage pipes; breaks and/or leaks in steam pipes in the building; the breakdown of water heaters or air conditioning systems; clogged sinks, basins toilets; leakage of water deposits or tanks; leakage of roofs and windows; seepage in basements; clogged roof gutters and downpipes; broken water mains.

A classic example of the damage a broken water main can cause is found in the well-documented account of the Stanford University flood (4). OF November 8, 1978, an eight inch (25.4 centimeters) water main ruptured outside of one of the Stanford libraries - the Meyer Research Library - where new construction was underway. The rupture site was some 20 feet from the nearest wall. The flow of water was turned off about 20 minutes after the rupture took place. In the meantime, water entered the basement of the library where there were two levels of a metal-tiered construction and damaged some 50,000 research volumes.


Contents - Previous - Next