“Fire in the Archive” is not generally an expression that most Archivists want to hear in their day to day work but an exception was made on the 30th September 2015 as it was the title for the Scottish Council on Archives (SCA) annual meeting and training day.
The SCA are a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation, which supports the Scottish Archive sector by providing training and guidance on collections development, records management and outreach. The day was held at New Register House (part of the National Records of Scotland) in Edinburgh and as the title suggests, the day centered on sharing experiences by those who had experienced fire in their repository and knowledge sharing to help delegates guard against potential fires as best they can.
After a short welcome by the SCA Chair, Dr Irene O’ Brien, the day began with an introduction from Linda Ramsay, the SCA Preservation Committee Convener. Linda explained the role of the Preservation Committee and the options available to practitioners who might find themselves needing conservation, preservation or in worst case scenarios, salvage help or advice. All delegates were also given a leaflet produced by the British Library Preservation Advisory Centre on salvage after a disaster has taken place. It was comforting to know that should the unthinkable happen, help and support are available.
The first speaker was Iwan Bryn James, Head of the Conservation unit of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymu, National Library of Wales. On the 26th April 2013, a workman working up on the roof of one of the library buildings caused a fire which very quickly got out of control. The building was evacuated really quickly (testament to the library’s evacuation procedures) but in was another four hours before the flames were brought under control. Iwan spoke of the shock felt by many of the staff but despite this they very quickly rallied together and started planning to deal with the consequences of the fire.
The Library is only just beginning to recover from the fire, almost two and a half years on. The pictures showing the damage were hard to look at but some of the following pictures showing the salvage of records and the hard work the team put in to save items which looked to be lost highlighted the fact that specialist conservation help should always be sought as it may be possible to save even the most damaged items. The practical information contained within Iwan’s talk, including the importance of a well-stocked disaster trolley (or seven in the case of the Library) is invaluable as is an updated disaster plan. Records stored in archive boxes were protected far more than those loose on shelves and polythene sheets were used after the fire to stop increased water damage to items and records, but also desks and computers.
The day continued with a talk from Susannah Waters, Archivist of the Glasgow School of Art titled ‘Archives from the Ashes’ which dealt with the aftermath of the fire which took hold of Glasgow school of Art’s Macintosh building on the 23rd May 2014. Although the fire destroyed the Macintosh Library (one of the most iconic library rooms in the world) and countless rare books ad items of furniture, fire damage to the archive collection was limited. However, water damage from work to put out the fire caused more issues and the Archive has been involved in a fire recovery project ever since. The School was art received a great deal of outside help from the Scottish Council on Archives, the National Records of Scotland and the Glasgow Area Disaster Planning Network (which exists solely to help members in the aftermath of disaster.) The school was also overwhelmed with support from volunteers, students and staff who wanted to help in any way they could. Susannah pointed out that organization of these helpers was essential and plans necessary to make sure that all jobs were covered at all times and people were sufficiently trained to help.
Social media had a large role to play in recruiting helpers, updated those interested in the recovery project and sourcing new copies of items lost in the fire. The suggestion of having a smartphone in your disaster trolley went down particularly well with delegates. The fire also made the archive think about their online presence as any digital collections will form the basis of a new collection if the worst should happen. The recovery project is still underway and is expected to continue until at least 2018.
After a break for the SCA AGM to take place and lunch; practical advice and guidance was given by Gavin Gray, Watch Manager – Prevention and Protection, National Fire Safety Enforcement, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. Gavin pointed out the importance of knowing current legislation, completing and updating risk assessments, training staff properly in both procedures and using equipment and writing a comprehensive disaster plan. Gavin also shows pictures from fires across the UK to highlight the damage which can be done and how having the proper procedures in place can help make things a little bit easier.
Overall, the day was really useful and informative. All the speakers dealt with a potentially distressing topic in a professional manner and the delegates left feeling able to make preparations to avoid fire but also confident they could deal with the situation should the worst happen in their own repositories.