When you visit the Library of Congress you are likely to hear or read about the loss of collections to fires, first in 1814 during the War of 1812 and then later, on Christmas Eve 1851. Unfortunately, a number of other countries have also suffered losses of parliamentary or national library buildings and important materials due to fires that have either started accidentally or as a deliberate act. In 1849, for example, the Canadian Library of Parliament in Montreal lost all but 200 of its 12,000 books to fire. Many more documents were also lost in the fire, and last year archeologists uncovered the charred remains of seven books from the site of the pre-Confederation parliament.
The British House of Commons Library and its materials at the Houses of Parliament in London also burned in a fire in 1834. Nearly all the House of Commons records were destroyed “in one of the greatest archival disasters the United Kingdom has ever known.”
The Canadian Library of Parliament, now in Ottawa, was again threatened by a fire that engulfed large parts of the Parliament buildings in 1916. This time the collection was saved “because of the foresight of librarian Alpheus Todd in insisting on iron fire doors and clerk “Connie” MacCormac’s quick thinking in ordering them to be slammed shut before evacuating the building.”
A similar situation to that later event had also occurred in New Zealand. This week, on December 11, it is the anniversary of a devastating fire that destroyed New Zealand’s wooden Parliament buildings in 1907. However, the General Assembly Library (now the Parliamentary Library) and its collection were saved. It was the only building in the complex that survived, and it remains standing today. According to the New Zealand History website,
Staff and volunteers moved more than 15,000 volumes from the building’s ground floor as a precaution against the flames breaking through. The morning light revealed the scale of the devastation to the crowds and parliamentarians who had come to watch: the old wooden buildings were completely destroyed, but New Zealand’s de facto national library – with its 80,000 volumes and many other treasures – had been saved by its brick walls and metal fire door.
People also worked through the night to save other items from the buildings. According to one report, “refreshments were provided at the hotel opposite.”
I visited the Parliamentary Library in 2011 and returned with pictures for an In Custodia Legis blog post. The building has been restored and refurbished, although the process was interrupted by three fires in 1992. You can see 360 degree panoramic images of parts of the Parliamentary Library building as it looks today on the New Zealand History website (scroll down to the “Interactive” section).
And I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that the Library of Congress has comprehensive plans, procedures, and equipment in place to protect collections from fire and other potential disasters, and provides information on emergency preparedness and response to help other institutions as well.