With the National Firefighters Congress to be held in Toulouse in 2023, this is an opportunity to highlight the sometimes discreet work that goes on upstream between firefighters and major institutions.
A book is a precious possession. When it is old, even very old like incunabula, it is the memory of a past inaccessible by any other means. Fire is a formidable enemy for books, which is why on June 12, 2023, an exercise involving staff from the University Library (BU), agents from the Doua security center, and firefighters from the SDMIS simulated the evacuation of 15,000 documents from the ancient collections of the Claude Bernard Lyon1 University.
What are we talking about?
On the night of June 11 to 12, 1999, at 1 a.m., the security guard at the Palais Hirch on the banks of the Rhône, where Lyon 2 and Lyon 3 universities are located, was awakened by the fire department, due to the lack of an alarm: the library was on fire. Progress was difficult due to closed doors and poorly arranged shelves, and the fire was only really extinguished on June 18! Of the 460,000 books, 300,000 were irremediably destroyed, while a large proportion of the remainder were badly damaged by water and are still in the capable hands of book restorers.
A human chain of firemen and volunteers evacuated some 5,000 books dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, which form part of the library’s most precious collection. However, all the periodical collections and theses since the 19th century were burnt. It is important to note that the heart of the site, located underground, was not affected, sparing the incunabula (printed between 1450 and 1501), and the manuscripts. However, the loss of heritage is considerable.
1_ The Service Commun de la Documentation (SCD), in charge of BU Lyon 1, and the Service Départemental-Métropolitain d’Incendie et de Secours (SDMIS) have drawn up an entire procedure for developing evacuation plans;
2_ Lyon 1’s Security Department was also involved, notably in the implementation of the backup plan for old collections. The Central Station (PC) of the Security Service at La Doua (Lyon 1 Campus) planned and carried out an exercise, following a protocol drawn up in advance by BU.
3_ The aim of such training is to ensure that, in the event of a disaster, the BU Sciences can be up and running more quickly, with prior knowledge of the emergency plan, but also to facilitate collaboration between Villeurbanne’s fire department and La Doua’s security staff. Linking the skills of Lyon 1 staff with those of the fire department was one of the main challenges of this exercise.
The exercise began on June 12, 2023 at 9:40 am and ended at 10:47 am. I invite you to discover the details by following this link. Everything went smoothly, and above all, communication between the SDMIS firefighters and the La Doua HQ security team was seamless.
The exercise also showed that the evacuation of books requires a great deal of handling, as there are many books to extract.
A new agreement between the SDMIS and the PC sécurité is currently being drawn up.
- Preserving knowledge and history for future generations;
- Provide access to a wide range of documentary resources, such as books, journals, newspapers, magazines, online databases …. This enables the public to acquire knowledge and carry out research;
- It is a learning environment where students, researchers, and the general public can access educational resources to enhance their skills, education, and training;
- The library encourages reading by providing a wide variety of books;
- An academic and research library is essential for researchers, as it houses specialized collections and provides advanced research services to assist researchers in their work;
- It is also a gathering place for the community, offering meeting spaces, cultural and educational programs, art exhibitions, workshops and many other activities;
- A library can also collect and preserve materials relating to local culture and history, including archives, photographs, audio recordings, and much more, in order to document and celebrate cultural diversity.
In short, libraries are indispensable institutions that promote access to information, education, culture, research and the preservation of knowledge, while playing a vital role in the development of individuals and communities.
Previous library fires around the world
It’s not easy to draw up a list of the major libraries burnt down around the world, but here are a few examples:
- Library of Alexandria, Egypt. The Library of Alexandria was one of the largest libraries in the ancient world. It was founded by Ptolemy I in 283 BC. It contained almost half a million manuscripts. However, this magnificent library was destroyed by several fires over the course of its history. It was destroyed between 48 BC and 642. The fire destroyed many of the precious manuscripts and parchments in the library, which was one of the greatest centers of learning in antiquity;
- Royal Library of Copenhagen, Denmark: In 1728, a fire broke out in the Royal Library of Copenhagen, destroying around 30,000 books;
- Library of Congress, United States: in 1851, a fire broke out in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., destroying around 35,000 books, i.e. 2/3 of the 55,000 volumes;
- In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Strasbourg’s municipal library was completely destroyed by fire during the siege of the city by Prussian troops;
- In 1871, the Bibliothèque de la Ville de Paris was completely destroyed in a fire started by insurgents at the end of the Paris Commune, and some 120,000 volumes were lost;
- During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, the University library was deliberately set on fire by Serb artillerymen, destroying a large part of its collection. This act of destruction was seen as an attack on the city’s culture and heritage;
- The National Library of Iraq, also known as the Alexandria Library of Iraq, was destroyed during the war in 2003. The library building contained around 1.5 million books and historical documents. The American army was blamed for the fire, which destroyed much of Iraq’s culture and history. But it was later revealed that the fire was caused by local looters who took advantage of the war to steal valuables from the library.
- En 2018, un incendie a ravagé une grande partie de la collection de la Bibliothèque nationale du Brésil à Rio de Janeiro. L’incendie a été causé par un court-circuit électrique dans l’un des systèmes de climatisation de la pièce où étaient stockées les œuvres audiovisuelles. Plus de 20 millions de pièces, y compris des livres rares, des documents historiques et des photographies, ont été détruits. La perte sur le plan du patrimoine historique et culturel est considérable, voire « incalculable ».
As we can see, there have been both accidental and deliberate fires.
The loss is sometimes all the more inestimable as many libraries contain works that exist in only one copy in the world…
There are many causes of fire, including: – electrical short-circuits, – negligence, such as the presence of coffee makers, radiators, lights, and candles, – war and looting, – natural disasters, such as earthquakes or forest fires.
A more exhaustive table can be found by following this link.
Enemies of the book
Fire is not the only enemy of books.
Water (seepage, flooding), poor environmental conditions, mold, insects, handling, storage conditions, even readers…
Fire: while fire can reduce paper and leather to ashes, it is also harmful because of the heat it produces. It melts microfilms and CD-ROMs, and releases smoke and dry or oily soot that can seep into the body of books.
Smokers, electric coffee makers and auxiliary heaters can be the source, sometimes accentuated by vehicles parked on firemen’s access roads or in front of emergency exits. Fear of theft can also lead to harmful access protection.
Water: this can be caused by internal water damage (leaking pipes, poor waterproofing, roofs, windows), external flooding or even fire-fighting! In the event of excessive humidity, books soak up water to saturation point, weakening the document and causing mechanical damage such as seams breaking, glues losing their adhesive strength, leaves detaching and bindings becoming misshapen. Leather and parchment relax, photographic emulsions swell and detach from their support, inks dissolve…
Raised shelving already provides protection against flooding.
The climatic conditions on the premises must be carefully monitored to ensure that they do not support the development of microorganisms, which are particularly formidable. Microbiological testing of the environment can provide early warning of any problems. Molds have the ability to grow on and inside most materials, they use as a nutrient source, with organic materials being the most vulnerable. We maintain the climatic conditions most unfavorable to microbial growth: relative humidity 50% +/-5% and temperature 18°C +/-2°C,
We won’t go into the harmful effects of insects (silverfish, cockroaches, book lice) or rodents!
On a smaller scale, bookshops also play a fundamental role in the life of the city, as we saw when we had to classify them as essential or non-essential businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, their closure left the population in a state of incomprehension and even disarray! The availability of classic works, as well as the many new releases (650 at the start of the 2023 academic year) published each year, enables people to cultivate their knowledge, build their confidence, pursue their personal development, escape…
Although bookstores are not intended to preserve humanity’s cultural heritage, they play a fundamental role in the life of the city, bringing together different populations from the same area and acting as a “link” between residents. They also provide access to culture for people who don’t have access to libraries. It’s easier to walk into a bookshop than to pick up a library card. Many books are available at reduced prices, and the “pass-culture” scheme introduced by many towns is a definite plus. Nevertheless, compared with a library where you have to return the book after reading it, keeping the book can be a founding gesture in building your own library.
Then, more fundamentally, they welcome the very young especially children, as children’s literature is very rich in our country.
They also act as meeting places, hosting authors, organizing conferences, and staging readings aimed specifically at children.
As far as safety is concerned, they too must comply with a certain number of rules.
Things to remember
These tragic incidents have underlined the crucial importance of preserving literary heritage. In order to prevent such disasters in the future, French libraries have put in place various safety measures, such as advanced fire-fighting systems, surveillance and security systems, digital preservation projects and emergency plans (as we have just seen for the Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1). It is essential to raise awareness of the importance of preserving our literary heritage and the devastating consequences of fire on our history and culture. Libraries are actively working to prevent such incidents and protect literary treasures for future generations.