"More than machinery, we need humanity."

(Libraries and/or Archives) + fire = bad

While playing the somber game of “what is posing an existential threat to libraries and archives this week?” it can be easy to focus on slow destructive forces such as budget cuts. Alas, periodically a stark reminder comes along that insofar as libraries and archives rely upon material objects (books, papers, an so forth) they are put in danger by forces that wreak destruction upon these material objects. Though such destructive forces may not pose an existential threat to libraries, as such, they can certainly prove quite devastating. All of which is a drawn out way of stating: fire does not mix well with libraries and archives.

This was on galling display in two separate incidents: the fire at a Brooklyn warehouse that left documents strewn around the borough, and a fire at the library of the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences in Moscow (Russia). It may remain rather premature to fully judge the extent of the damage wrought by these two fires (and the further damage that may have been caused in the process of fighting the fires [library materials do not do particularly well when they are soaked]), but initial reports create a fairly grim picture.

The fire in Moscow took place at an institution comparable in some ways to the Library of Congress with a collection containing numerous unique items. The destruction was summed up evocatively by the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Fortov, who was quoted in the Guardian as saying the fire was “reminiscent of Chernobyl” (on a cultural scale). The fire in Brooklyn may not have ravaged a library of great historical significance, but in blanketing Brooklyn with paper it forced many individuals to confront a question that they may not have previously pondered, namely: where do all of those paper records get stored? The warehouse in Brooklyn was not filled with material from a single institution and the singed detritus blowing about the streets showed that the warehouse had been filled with content from numerous government agencies (including records relating to hospitals and courts); however, the warehouse was not simply being used for storing material according to governmental records keeping policies, the site was also being used by archival institutions (at least one) to house material “off-site.” Thus the Brooklyn warehouse fire was simultaneously a loss of important informational records and a loss of culturally important archival material. And though the cultural damage sown by the fire in Brooklyn may not be exactly comparable to what happened in Moscow, both instances are clear instances of the age old formula “(libraries and/or archives) + fire = bad.”

A fire that leaves personal documents containing important private information scattered about the streets acts as an interesting reminder to people about the materiality that is easily taken for granted. In the course of our lives it is easy to become accustomed to the occasional (or not so occasional) small amount (or not so small amount) of paperwork: forms that need to be filled out, things that need to be signed, documents that need to be copied in triplicate and resubmitted, and so forth. Yet in many instances these documents are passed on to others at which point our concern for them dissipates – we knew we had to fill the form out, but we did not think this entailed responsibility for preserving the document in any way.

What the Brooklyn warehouse fire reveals is that all of that paperwork goes somewhere – and sometimes the somewhere to which it goes is teeming with lots of other papers that also had to go somewhere. Whether this material was saved due to legal requirements, a records keeping schedule, or because the material was deemed to have archival value is somewhat insignificant – the larger point is that individuals may be free from dwelling on such material matters, but for libraries, archives, and other repositories tasked with preserving information the material truly matters.

At a point when “fill out this form” is being displaced by “you can fill out this form online” it can be easy to look at these fires, sadly shake your head, and declare that a digital future will certainly be more secure. After all, is sadness over burnt books not simply a reflection of fetishizing (or at least romanticizing) those dusty old books? While it is certainly a historical and cultural tragedy for a genuinely unique item to be turned into ash – if it was such a historic treasure why is it that such material had not simply been digitized? Without wanting to devote hours to a discussion of the costs and workflow involved in digitization, the important response to the imperative “digitize everything” is a reminder that just because digital content seems ephemeral does not mean that it is not also reliant upon some form of materiality. After a box of governmental records has been digitized or after a book has been scanned – those files are saved onto a hard drive and that hard drive has to live somewhere. And though some of those working in computer forensics have proven unnervingly skilled at recovering information from damaged hard drives the fact remains: “hard drive + fire” is also a rather bad combination. Perhaps this is why librarians and archivists working in and around digitization adhere to the principle of LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) – though, even after creating multiple digital backups the originals are still preserved.

Those who work in libraries, archives, and records management are often seen as being tasked with providing access to information, and while this is not inaccurate it easily overlooks the role that ensuring preservation of the past plays in ensuring access in the future. As more and more information, and access to such information, shifts online it becomes easier for many to forget about the warehouses filled with boxes of neatly organized papers or the sturdy shelves on which rest venerable volumes. And those who tout the paperless digital future may not be thinking of the server farms (physical places filled with physical machines), cables, and other essential material infrastructure that makes “paperless” possible. A news making fire or a borough papered in old medical records, directly confronts people with the material that they often have the luxury of not thinking about. Alas, those who are tasked with trying to keep such material from falling victim to a fiery fate enjoy no such luxury.

Perhaps the formula needs to be shifted, and simplified, slightly. Maybe it is simply that “information + fire” is always a bad combination.

[Note – Z659 is the Library of Congress subject heading for “Libraries – Destruction and Pillage”]

Related Content:

How To Avoid Ruining a Book

Z659 – Canadian Edition

If You Want to See the Sharing Economy – Go to the Library

How to Read a Book On a Crowded Train

Read Banned Books – Support Your Library

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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