History is always in danger. By history, I mean the historical assets that we use as evidence and examples to share stories from the past. These assets are often in a state of jeopardy. Numerous forces could destroy these resources and the histories they contain. This blog series addresses what we at HistoryIT call the 3Fs – the greatest dangers to your history: Fire, Flood, and Forgetting.
This post takes a look at the first F – fire. I have observed that most of us are aware that our historical archives – whether personal or institutional – are one matchstick away from total destruction. This is a serious concern. Though, it rarely prompts an urgency for digital preservation. We always think it won’t be our house that burns. Until it does.
A recent devastating example of this fact occurred in September 2018 when the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil burned, destroying over ninety per cent of its holdings. A former Brazilian Environment Minister described the loss as “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory.” Experts called it an incalculable loss to Brazilian science, history, and culture, particularly with regard to Brazil’s indigenous peoples.
For years, museum leadership had worked to obtain resources to preserve the museum’s extensive collections. Shortly before the fire, they had closed a deal with the Brazilian government’s development bank to fund a fire prevention project – too little, too late.
J. Andrew Wilson, the Assistant Director for Fire Prevention and Safety at the Smithsonian, describes the insidious nature of fire as follows: “Property damaged by floods can often be dried out and restored. Structural damage from an earthquake might be repaired. Stolen property always has a chance of being recovered. Damage from fire, however, is usually permanent and irreparable. Historical buildings or contents, once reduced to ash, can never be restored. Fire is more cunning and less discriminating than a thief.”
How best to protect your organization’s historical assets from fire? Prioritize fire safety measures and digital preservation!
1. Fire Prevention & Fire Suppression Measures
A strong fire prevention program covers a wide range of topics: alarms, drills, housekeeping, equipment maintenance, and staff training to recognize and eliminate fire hazards. It involves creating or updating policies on smoking and appliances such as space heaters and hot plates; addresses lightning protection; and incorporates periodic inspections to look for dangers such as frayed electrical cords.
Prevention does not always succeed. The most common fire suppression system is a sprinkler system. However, this introduces the likelihood of water damage, which can also destroy your holdings. Depending on the size of your archive, a sprinkler system could help stop a fire in its tracks before it spreads to other items.
An ideal archival environment contains dry fire suppression, such as powder or halon. These can be very expensive to implement and maintain. If your archive is small and mostly paper, consider moving it to a facility that maintains archival fire suppression. If this is not possible, at minimum, procure a fire-rated cabinet or safe and store your oldest and most valuable items in it. These containers will only reduce the possibility of destruction by a major fire. However, they can offer greater protection from a small fire or the water produced by a sprinkler system. Alternatively, consider housing your most precious materials in a bank vault or security deposit box.
2. Invest In Digital Preservation
If an organization has not digitally preserved its holdings, then it will likely lose its entire history in a fire. If, however, an organization has digitally archived its assets in a strategic manner (including cataloging and tagging and categorizing all of its contents), then a fire will destroy only the physical item, not the knowledge and history connected to that item.
While a digital archive would not have prevented the tragic loss of the items in the National Museum of Brazil, it would have allowed current and future generations to access digital reproductions of each item long after the item itself had been destroyed. Advances in 3D printing would also enable the creation of accurate reproductions.
The HistoryIT Way
At HistoryIT our mission is to save history. Our products and services are designed to democratize our collective history by making the public historical record just as searchable to a fifth grader as it is to a professional researcher. We transform physical holdings into digital files that endure the test of time, even as technology evolves, and then we incorporate them into an accessible and interactive digital archive.
How fireproof are your organization’s treasured items? If you suffered a fire tonight, would future generations still be able to learn about those items and access your story? If your answers create concern, we’re here to help. Drop us a line today, to schedule a fire-preparedness consulting call.