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December2007
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In Case of Fire . . .

More than 2,000 homes and 780 square miles of land were destroyed by the wildfires that raged through Southern California in October. More than half-a-million residents fled with family members, pets and whatever prized possessions they could fit into their vehicles. Sadly, many treasured memories had to be left behind as homeowners evacuated for their safety.

Fire wrecks a forest. 1939 A view of the Capitol after the conflagration of the Aug. 24, 1814

In response to the fires in and the resulting damage to personal and public collections, the Library of Congress has updated its preservation Web page on emergency care. Information about whom to contact for guidance, as well as how to protect and salvage collections and, most important, where to go for supplies and aid, can be found at “Fire Recovery for Collections” or at “Emergency Preparedness: Introduction.”

The Library itself suffered the ravages of two major fires in the 19th century. In 1814, invading British troops set fire to the Capitol Building, where the collection was housed. On Christmas Eve 1851, a major fire again devastated the holdings of the Library, destroying about 35,000 of the Library's 55,000 volumes.

In addition to destroying collections, fire can also damage them significantly. Collections can be scorched, singed, embrittled, discolored or soiled by soot and smoke. Water used to extinguish fires can cause staining, discoloration and ink or color “bleeding.” Water from hoses and sprinkler systems can cause some materials to stick together, as well as germinate mold growth. Normally, the Library of Congress recommends that collection salvage be left to experts such as conservators or commercial salvage firms specializing in the field. These experts understand the nature of material, and know which types of collection items might be damaged even further by well-intended but misguided salvage attempts.

The Library’s Preservation Directorate can direct people to various places for help, such as the American Institute for Conservation’s Web site for "Finding a Conservator" and the Heritage Preservation Foundation’s emergency resources page.

In addition, the Library of Congress engages in training and research projects to advance emergency mitigation. For instance, Library staff members occasionally offer salvage training, and the Library’s scientific research laboratory assesses various salvage and fire suppression systems. Also, the Library’s Web site has video demonstrations of collection salvage techniques for water-damaged materials.

For protection of collections, including its own, the Library advocates a well-developed “Continuity of Operations Plan” that addresses preservation and emergency planning, mitigation, response, recovery and salvage of collections. The Library also supports the spirit of the “MayDay Initiative,” created by the Society of American Archivists, which promotes awareness of emergency mitigation activities each May.

The Science, Technology and Business Division presented a lecture on wildfires featuring Compton Tucker, a senior earth scientist in the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He discussed using satellites to observe and investigate fires and methods used to better manage these fires. This presentation is just one of many science-related lectures featured on the Library’s webcast page.


A. Fire wrecks a forest. 1939. Prints and Photographs Division. SUMMARY: Poster for forest fire prevention showing a burning cigarette and a forest fire. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZC2-859 (color film copy slide); Call No.: POS - WPA - ILL .01 .F534, no. 1 (B size) [P&P]

B. A view of the Capitol after the conflagration of the Aug. 24, 1814. 1814. Prints and Photographs Division. SUMMARY: Print shows a view from southeast of fire-damaged U.S. Capitol building. Reproduction Information: Reproduction Nos.: LC-USZC4-408 (color film copy transparency)
LC-USZ62-1802 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: PGA - Strickland--View of the Capitol ... (B size) [P&P]