Library disasters

Library disasters

Parliament Buildings during the 1907 fire, showing firemen using hoses and piles of books, desks, etc., on the lawn in front. The General Assembly Library is on the right.

Library disasters and near disasters

Fire was the scourge of colonial towns and cities. Old, tinder-dry wooden buildings and books were a highly combustible combination, and many private and public libraries caught alight. Some escaped with little damage, but many more lost valuable collection items and/or their buildings. A fire in the Westport Athenaeum and Public Library in 1903 destroyed the library building and most of its books,  including first editions of the works of Charles Dickens.

Even loftier institutions housed in fireproofed buildings weren’t free from the threat of fire. The General Assembly Library moved into a ‘fireproof’ building in 1901 but its chief librarian Charles Wilson remained concerned about the fire risk posed by the adjoining Parliament buildings. He arranged for fireproof shutters and iron doors to be installed where the library abutted them, and for windows at the rear of the library to be bricked up. He was right to be concerned. In December 1907 a fire swept through Parliament Buildings and spread to the roof of the library. On learning of the danger Wilson enlisted the assistance of staff and the public to clear the library. Thanks to the strenuous efforts of the firefighters and its fireproof design the library building survived, though the main entrance and foyer were damaged.

Library protest heats up

In 1988 five local men lit a small ceremonial fire (or ahi ka) in Tauranga Public Library as part of a land claim protest and barricaded themselves in with books and furniture. During the course of their arrest the fire was knocked over, setting alight some books and starting a fire in the stairwell.

It wasn’t the only time this library was threatened by fire. In 1992 three fires disrupted the building’s refurbishment. A fire in October caused serious damage and made extensive restoration work necessary. Despite the changes that had occurred in building materials since the colonial era and improvements in fire safety following the Ballantynes department store fire, other libraries were also struck by fire in the later 20th century. Some fires, such as those at Wainuiomata Public Library in 1979 and Paparua County Library in 1984, were thought to have been deliberately lit.

Fire has not been the only threat to libraries. Water damage, through floods, heavy rain or sprinkler systems, has proved to be just as destructive to library collections. In 1979-80 staff of the Alexander Turnbull Library expressed concern at the damage being caused to the collections housed in the old Free Lance building on The Terrace. A downpour in December 1979 saw water cascade from the roof into the manuscripts room. Among the estimated 500-600 items damaged was an original manuscript from Captain Cook’s log which was found in 120 mm of water.

Water has continued to cause problems for libraries. In November 2002 Auckland City Library was flooded after a forklift, being used to replace escalators on its public floors, fell onto a floor below. It smashed through the concrete and broke the sprinkler pipe in the ceiling of the upper storage basement. Water landed on books over an area of 8 m sq and also poured into the lower storage basement. The flood damaged about 2000 books and as many items of sheet music. In 2009 the library announced that a new state-of-the-art fire suppression system would be installed in the special collections storage room - taking away the need to have a water-based system.

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