Publication Date

January 1, 1989

Perspectives Section



Research Methods

Groggily I groped in my sleep to still the persistent ringing of what I thought was my alarm arousing me for my 8:00 a.m. class, but in fact it was the telephone! Who in the world could be calling at three o’clock in the morning? My half-shut eyes snapped open at the curt voice of a colleague whose offices at school were around the corner from mine, “There’s been a fire at Gambrell Hall. Your office wasn’t involved, but water is dripping down onto your desk and bookshelves. You’d better get up there.”

Within twenty minutes my husband and I were there, armed with plastic camping tarps and boxes to cover and move books. No real damage had occurred in my office, thank goodness, and the books and papers in danger were quickly moved off the floor and covered. But where was the fire? We climbed the stairs, past the firemen rolling up their hoses and into the sodden hallway above to find our colleague, Japanese history specialist Dean Kinzley, standing stunned before the fire-gutted ruins of his office. Arson investigators were already at work, sifting through the debris. (The cause has now formally been attributed to arson, no suspect has been apprehended although the investigation is ongoing.)

No scholar dependent on books and manuscripts who has not seen such a sight can imagine the sinking horror of staring into a once book-lined room, now blackened and dripping, the remnants of a lifetime of work lying in sodden heaps on the floor. The heat had melted down the computer; the telephone had been transformed into a bizarre modern art form. A plastic box of note cards on the desk farthest away from the hottest part of the blaze had melted and fused its irreplaceable contents into a solid lump of plastic and paper. Who among us has not suffered nightmares of such a sight, as we struggle to complete the work that will lead to the papers, the promotions, the tenure, the recognition from our colleagues and peers, all of which is dependent on the damage-vunerable papers and books that line our offices? Was it only yesterday that Dean had been telling me that with inflation, his Japanese-language books could cost $75.00, even $100.00 each? As I returned home to try to sleep, I wondered, “could anything there be saved?”

In some ways, our department was lucky. The fire was confined to one office. And here in South Carolina the history department has been involved with libraries, archives, and museums in a statewide planning organization called “PALMCOP” (Palmetto Archives, Libraries and Museums Council on Preservation) to insure the conservation of our enormous and fragile documentary record. As the instructor responsible for archival education in our applied history program, I was familiar with archival and library concerns about “Disaster Preparedness” and was aware that we had trained people available who knew what to do in such an emergency. When my 8:00 a.m. class was over, I called Pat Morris, the conservation administrator at the nearby South Carolina Department of Archives and History. “We’ve had a fire…. Can you come look at the damage and help us decide what to do?” I pleaded.

Within an hour Pat and two of her staff were there and yes, we decided, much could be saved. We located essential supplies: a freezer large enough to store cartons of paper-wrapped wet books and a large drying space for less-damaged books; milk cartons to pack them in; butcher paper to wrap them in; large fans to keep the air moving; lights so we could see what was in that black hole; and volunteers to do the work.

The worst enemy of paper often is not the fire itself, but the water used to put it out and the mold that grows rapidly if wet books are not dried quickly or at least stabilized by freezing until they can be dried. In a warm climate like ours, forty-eight hours is about all the grace you have. By 2:00 p.m., faculty, students, and archives staff members were hard at work pulling damaged materials out of the rubble and off the shelves.

By late the next afternoon, we had finished the first step. Fifteen milk cartons (about 300 books) of the most damaged materials were safely in our university cafeteria’s walk-in freezer. Tragically for Kinzley, it was his shelves of Japanese publications that were above the spot where the fire started, and these predominated in the freezer. Another twenty-five boxes of books (damp but not soaked) were packed and moved to unused “expansion gallery” space in our soon-to-open South Carolina State Museum. We opened and spread them around the floor on plastic garbage bags, interleaved with absorbant paper, and set up large fans to keep air currents moving so that they would dry. About half of Kinzley’s library had been rescued and about half of the salvaged works were restored fairly inexpensively. Two weeks of tending books during the drying process restored many to full use (if not to their former beauty); a week of deodorizing with ozone treatment at a local carpet cleaner have even made them fit companions in the office. Simple spine repairs restored others and those with charred edges, lost covers, and burned spines have required the construction of “phase boxes” to enclose legible intact pages of books that have lost their original support and housing. We are trying to figure out where (and how much it will cost) to freeze-dry and thus retrieve and restore the Japanese language books on hold in the freezer.

We learned some important lessons that we think it important to pass on to colleagues. There are preventive measures that you can take to insure that in the event of a disaster your most valuable materials will be (relatively) safe, and plans you can make to prepare for efficient action if a disaster occurs:

As a department:

  1. Discover which institutions and agencies in your community have the knowledge you will need to rescue and restore paper and/or computer materials. Does your university have a “Disaster Plan”? Is there a “Disaster-Preparedness” consortium among local libraries, manuscript collections, and museums? Have they drawn up a city-wide or regional checklist of procedures and the location of essential supplies in the event of a large-scale disaster such as flood, hurricane, tornado, or fire? Can you be a part of that planning, or draw on its expertise? Who can you telephone for assistance, or put into motion for a disaster recovery effort?
  2. Develop a checklist of the location of the department’s most valuable records—the ones not duplicated elsewhere, and without which the department could not function. That will enable you to tell firemen what to save first if they ask you. If possible, make duplicates (particularly of the essential computer disks), and look for an alternative storage spot. Keep important paper records in metal filing cabinets.
  3. Investigate your university’s insurance policy or liability for damage to personal property kept in university offices. Publicize that information among your faculty, and clearly inform new faculty members if that liability is limited, so individuals can enhance their own insurance coverage. At our university (and perhaps at other large state institutions), coverage for the personal property of faculty in university offices is ambiguous at best.

As an individual:

  1. When you leave your office for the day, put away the most valuable things you are working on in metal file cabinets. Keep those notecards in metal, rather than plastic, file boxes or drawers. If you are like most of us, what you are working on is out and vunerable—that three-year accumulation of unread university notices is taking up protected space in the filing cabinet. The folders of class lectures in Kinzley’s file cabinets survived almost untouched; water did not penetrate, and the heat of the fire did not destroy the metal protection offered by his standard office file cabinet. But the paper copies of the half-finished manuscript that was to be his publication for tenure were spread around the tables and desks of his office. They, and the loose paper photocopies of archival research materials on which they were based, are gone.
  2. Keep at least one set of backup computer disks of your most important work in another location. Dean Kinzley had good backups of his manuscript. But they were in his desk, protecting him against computer failure but not against fire. Even if you are so busy that you don’t regularly update backup disks stored at home, wouldn’t it be better to have 100 pages of a 200 page manuscript than nothing at all?
  3. Make, and keep current, a list of the materials and equipment in your office, to document your loss should it be necessary. Check your homeowner’s insurance to see how much coverage extends to your office. Can you add a rider specifically covering what are, after all, essential professional tools—your books, notes, tape recorders, typewriters, computers? Look around your office, and think about what it would cost to replace just the things you cannot do without. In Kinzley’s case, his homeowner’s insurance coverage was limited to $250. Even with extensive volunteer labor, the costs for recovering and restoring the half of his library we salvaged has been a minimum of $1500. And that does not begin to count the value of the books totally lost, or the costs to replace photocopied research materials.
  4. Prompt your department to be aware of disaster preparedness measures; urge your university to develop a disaster plan.

The fire in our department was not on the scale of magnitude of the February 14, 1988 fire that destroyed 400,000 rare books at the Soviet Academy of Sciences Library. (See New York Times, Friday April 1, 1988, page 1; “Severe Fire Devastates Soviet Science Library,” Science 240 (8 April 1988), 138-139). More than three million additional books were damaged, and are undergoing some of the same treatment procedures that we have initiated. Yet paper materials do not have to be national treasures to be valued by the individuals who use them; unexpected disaster can strike small collections as readily as large ones. We are all at risk. Simple steps in disaster planning now, and education of the profession about what can be done should fire, flood, leaky roof, or tornado threaten books and papers, can minimize damage when the unexpected happens. Like the Boy Scouts, historians too can “be prepared!”

Constance B. Shultz is an assistant professor and assistant director on the applied history program at the University of South Carolina. She has been newly elected to the AHA Research Division.