NOTES FROM PRESERVATION
"What do I do after a fire?" Ask not what you can do after, but what you
can do before a fire. Our livelihood today, if not our lives, is dependent upon
the continuing existence of the buildings and collections we work in. Few of us
would be unaffected by a fire which might damage or destroy any of the Li-
braries. It was, perhaps, the knowledge that we'd have to deal with burnt
books if any books survived that led employees of Library East to quick-
ly respond to and fight the recent (January 28) fire there. Science hasn't yet
found a way to collect and paste together the molecules that were once sup-
ple, now fire blackened and embrittled paper.
What will remain after a fire is anyone's guess. It's safe to assume that
much will have been lost to the flames. That which survives the flames
will most likely have water damage. And, that which flames and water
miss, smoke damage is likely to claim. Only the occasional item will sur-
vive unharmed. The life expectancy of all surviving items, harmed or un-
harmed, will be decreased due to heat and relative humidity. It only makes
sense to pre-plan in order to reduce damage.
What should you do before a fire? Plan your routes of escape. Know the
locations of fire alarms and fire extinguishers. Find out how to use an extin-
guisher and which type of extinguisher should be used on which type of fire.
Use of an extinguisher could save the Libraries thousands of dollars in water
.damage and costly book restoration. Do nothing which jeopardizes your life
or the life of another. This states the obvious, I admit; but we rarely give ob-
vious things much thought.
Planning should extend to more than knowledge of emergency procedures.
It should think ahead to the worst and conceptualize materials recovery.
The following are some things to think about:
a 1. Much of preservation is built around the notion of "protective enclo-
sure." Use of protective enclosures such as portfolios, boxes, file cabinets,
desks, and even disk storage cases is encouraged.
In the early 1800's, book boxes, i.e., "Sollander-boxes, were touted for their
ability to withstand fire. Box makers would test the occasional box, tossing
it into a raging fire and pulling it out only after the fire had died. Standards
were being met if the contents of the box survived without noticeable dam-
Binding is another form of protective enclosure. It was noted in the Los An-
geles Public Library fires that bound books survived where the unbound books
they were shelved next to were completely destroyed.
Protective enclosures also reduce smoke damage. In the Johnson Hall/ASB
fire, much of the damage to disks could have been averted had the disks
been stored in cases with lids closed. In the same fire, vital records stored in
closed file cabinets and desks were slightly charred while those left on
desks and in cabinets with doors ajar were completely destroyed.
H 2. The State of Florida insures library materials only for the cost of
If the Libraries spent $1.50 to purchase a first edition of Huckleberry Finn
in 1910, we only get $1.50 although its replacement might cost $150.00 today.
For this reason, staff should have some idea if not a list of the most valua-
ble, rare and irreplaceable items in collections under their care. These items,
when ranked according to importance in the collection, will be among the
first recovered. This is a monumental, almost unthinkable task. Don't let
the apparent size of the task deter you from it. Make a list of 10 items,
record the title, call number and map the location of each. Keep this
information in multiple locations, including the Preservation Office. This
information will help a recovery team to prioritize its objectives.
3. Different materials react differently to the same conditions.
Rates of recovery must be quicker for less stable, more vulnerable materi-
als. Materials with water soluble colors must be recovered before those
with "permanent" colors. Coated (i.e., glossy) pages stick together in-
separably if allowed to dry while uncoated pages generally do not. Mag-
netic media audio- and video-tapes as well as computer disks begin
losing information almost as soon as a fire starts and continue deteriorating
until climate control can be re-established and information copied. Fortu-
nately, commercially available software is backed-up elsewhere in the
Libraries or can be re-purchased. For other magnetic media, keeping back-
up copies in another location is always an excellent idea.
Staff should be prepared to think logically, critically, and quickly but
calmly. Unfortunately, short of becoming more intimate with collections
under your care, I cannot suggest exercises which improve these skills. Per-
haps if you imagine the difficulty of dealing with materials in the AFA
Library, for example, should a fire break out and be extinguished with
water there... What would you recover first: rare books, books with coat-
ed paper, unique magnetic media, slides, architectural drawings?
Thinking about the worst is often the best preparation for a disaster of
any magnitude. As for the initial questions, "What do you do after a
fire?," the Preservation Office in collaboration with the Administrative
Services Division is drawing up plans that will provide clear answers.
-- Erich Kesse with the assistance of Susan McKinney