Friday, May 6, 2011
Fire - Enemy of Books
There is a delightful book titled The Enemies of Books by William Blades (Trubner, London, 1880, multiple editions) which covers multiple threats that books have been subjected to throughout history. The first and foremost is fire. Blades writes: " There are many of the forces of Nature which tend to injure Books; but among them all not one has been half so destructive as Fire. It would be tedious to write out a bare list only of the numerous libraries and bibliographical treasures which, in one way or another, have been seized by the Fire-king as his own. Chance conflagrations, fanatic incendiarism, Judicial bonfires, and even household stoves have, time after time thinned the treasures as well as the rubbish of past ages, until, probably not one thousandth part of the books that have been are still extant." We are all familiar with the burning of our national Capitol which housed the Library of Congress by the British in 1814. The destroyed library was replaced by the personal library of Thomas Jefferson which in turn was mostly destroyed in another fire in the Capitol in 1851. A Wisconsin Capitol fire in 1904 destroyed the collection of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, but quick action by a Supreme Court justice and University students saved the State Law Library. I have written a previous posts about the burning of the University Library in Algeria and the twice destroyed Library of Louvain. This year is the 100th anniversary of of one of America's most devastating library fires, the one that destroyed the New York State Library. At the time, the library was the fifth largest in the U.S. and the twentieth largest in the world. The fire has been called the most serious catastrophe to befall American historical material. The story of the fire is told in a new book published by the Friends of the New York State Library. The New York State Capitol and the Great Fire of 1911 was written by Paul Mercer and Vicki Weiss and is available from the Friends Store. Although great progress has been made in the prevention of library fires, they still remain one of the most dangerous enemies of books. Thanks to Mary Redmond at the New York State Library for information about the new book.