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Basic principles of fire protection in libraries and archives

Introduction

Fires may result from natural phenomena such as lightning or earthquakes, or from such unnatural events as wars, terrorist activities, or arson. However, the primary threat of fire in libraries and archives is caused when fire safety rules are ignored or not adopted in the first place.

The most common causes of fires in libraries and archives are due to violations of fire safety rules as they relate to the maintenance of the structure itself or personnel operations within the buildings. Older buildings which have been adapted for use as libraries or archives are particularly susceptible to structural problems which leave them at risk to fire. The structural integrity of the building can easily be breached at roofs, windows, basements, walls, and doors. They are also more likely to have electrical wiring in which the insulation has deteriorated and become a fire hazard. The outbreak of a sudden fire in a building which appears to have a good fire prevention plan in operation is most often traceable to deficient electrical wiring. It is, therefore, extremely important that defective wiring be replaced quickly and that precautions be taken to ensure that wiring is not damaged when maintenance work is underway close to the wiring.

The use of open fire near the library or archives collections is also highly dangerous. The risk of fire is greatly increased when maintenance work requires the use of welding or soldering torches. But, less obvious dangers such as portable space heaters, lights on extension cords, hot plates, and coffee makers are also fire hazards. Allowing staff to smoke in the records storerooms or at their workstations where they are working with archival records is one of the most obvious preventable fire risks.

General housekeeping practices are also important to a good fire prevention programme. While paper and other trash littered around a records storeroom may not be the initial cause of a fire, the debris can help the fire spread extremely fast within the area. The collection of dust in heating and ventilation ducts can also contribute to the rapid spread of fire throughout a building even though the fire has been quickly brought under control at its place of origin.

Although storerooms contain a high volume of combustible material, laboratories (both restoration and duplication), building support areas (such as electrical, carpentry, and paint shops), and boiler rooms present the highest risk of fire because of the nature of the work performed in these areas and the types of materials used.

Fires in libraries and archives cause two types of damage: material loss of the collections and perhaps the building; and, social damage. Fires which start in records storerooms usually result in far more damage to the contents than those started in other areas because of the high concentration of combustible material per unit of floorspace. Additionally, for the most part the contents of most buildings are replaceable by equally serviceable and attractive furnishings.

Archives, on the other hand, cannot be replaced. Once they have been destroyed, they are lost forever. With libraries, some of the collection may be replaceable or at least available to the public at another library. But even in libraries, some portion of their collection of materials will not be replaceable and duplicates will not be found elsewhere. This part of society's history will be lost forever to succeeding generations. Society has suffered some extraordinary losses from ancient times to the present, from the fire at the Alexandria Library to the fire at the Library of the Academy of Sciences in the former Soviet Union.

The cost of restoring documents and books damaged in fire is a substantially greater than what would be spent to store the materials under the best fire protection conditions. For the loss of irreplaceable information, there is no remedy, only the untold damage to society caused by its loss. While it is not possible to assure total fire protection of records and books in archives and libraries, it is possible to provide a very high level of fire protection that would normally limit the potential loss of records in such facilities to a small amount. It is, therefore, important that the archivist or librarian knows the degree of protection available or, conversely, the degree of potential damage from the fire protection systems available for archives and libraries.


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