The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 12, Number 4
Jun 1988


Leningrad Library Fire

On Sunday evening, February 14, a fire began in the newspaper room on the third floor of the Academy of Sciences Library in Leningrad. By the time it was extinguished the following afternoon, it had destroyed 400,000 books of the 12 million Housed in the building; two to three million more were damaged by heat and smoke; and over one million were damp or wet from the firemen's buses. The extent of the damage made it the worst library fire in history. (The Los Angeles Public Library fire by comparison, also destroyed 400,000 books, but damaged only a half million by heat and smoke.)

Many of the lost volumes were part of the Baer Collection of foreign scientific works: an early estimate gives 300,000, a later one 190,000, as the number lost. The rest were Russian books, many of then early scientific and medical books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The loss is keenly felt by Russian citizens, who admire and cherish books as few Westerners now do.

The Early Reports And The Coverup

Western newspapers did not find out about the fire until weeks later. The New York Times sent a reporter to Russia in late March, who published his story on the front page of the April 1 issue, with two photographs of books piled up or drying on lines in the library. We wrote, "The loss has reverberated throughout the library community like a death in the family." But the natural reaction of both Russians and Americans has been to ask why it took so long for the disaster to be made known, when so many professionals and other volunteers stood ready to help, and when so much was at stake. Comparisons to Chernobyl have been made, both in Russia and this country. In fact, the amount of criticism on this point in the Soviet press has been astounding. Perhaps it will result in more widespread adoption of disaster preparation and other preservation measures, and in greater openness in reporting disasters in the future.

The first report of the fire in the Soviet press seems to have been in a short article on page 4 in Sovietsksia Rossiia on February 16. The translation made by David H. Krauss at the Library of Congress is quoted in full here:

FIRE ON VASILEVSKY ISLAND

A fire alarm was sounded on Vasilevsky Island on 14 February at 8:14 p.m. The newspaper section on the third floor of the Academy of Sciences Library--the oldest book repository in this city on the Neva--was on fire.

The building is a very important one. The Ninth Fire Company responded immediately, and they were joined by the crews of seven other fire engines. "It is especially hard to put out a paper fire," said D. N. Menshikov, chief of the public relations section of the Fire Department, Central Administration of Domestic Affairs, Leningrad Regional Executive Committee. It seemed that the fire had been put out quickly, but in the middle of the night it flared up again. By the morning of February 15, more than 40 pieces of fire-fighting equipment and more than 400 fire fighters were at work--students from the Fire Academies and volunteer helpers. The battle lasted till dawn. Meanwhile, the academy students, the volunteers, end other students carried out books.

It would be premature to talk about the magnitude of the losses. Suffice it to say that the library began accumulating its books, newspapers, and other literature in the 18th century. And it was here that the books of the unique M. V. Lomonosov library were brought several years ago.

Recently, on several occasions, buildings on Vasilevsky Island have burned--university buildings, hostels, government institutions. Less than a month ago there was a fire in the throne room of the Catherine Palace in Pushkin. The cause of these misfortunes is carelessness--neglect of the most elementary fire-safety rules.

D. Vladimirov, Leningrad

An article in Leningradskaya Pravda on February 17 carried a statement by the library director, Vladimir A. Filov, which emphasized an early resumption of services and maintained that no really valuable books were burned. He mentioned only the loss of newspapers, modern Soviet books and foreign periodicals before 1930, and gave no indication of the real magnitude of the disaster. According to him, the water-damaged books were drying in the hallways, and everything seemed to be under control. This brave front could not be indefinitely maintained, of course. The Times report said he was hospitalized after the fire, reportedly suffering from a heart problem.

The library's acting director, Valery P. Leonov, was the first to admit, five days after the fire, that the unique Baer collection had been affected. A scathing criticism of the previous coverup ran in the February 24 Izvestiia. It also criticizes the overcrowding and lack of fire protection, and quotes Prof. Dimitri S. Likhachev, an outspoken activist for proper care of library and museum collections: "It's necessary to get the best specialists available for this, those with the most experience. It would ho wrong to delay."

How The Books Were Salvaged

Initially there seem to have been the usual confusion, despair and inappropriate actions often seen in libraries without disaster plans. There is no report of any call made to the national library for help and advice, something that would ho natural in the U.S. There are hard-to-deny reports from several Russian sources including Prof. Likhachev (Moscow News, March 27, summarized in the May American Libraries), that library administrators called in bulldozers to clear away debris that included salvageable books, and that many of these books were saved by members of the public, who climbed the fence to rescue them from the path of the bulldozer, after being locked out and turned away by the administrators, who claimed there was nothing worth saving.

The bulldozer operator is said to have turned off his machine and joined the volunteers.

After that the news gets better. The wet books were frozen, until all the freezer space in Leningrad was full. Then an appeal was broadcast over the radio for private citizens to dry the remaining books in their homes. By late March 93% of these books (600,000 by one account and 800,000 by another) had been dried by this means and returned to the library. Only about 10,000 books became moldy, a small percentage of the total. The library's burned-out rooms were cleared out, washed and disinfected. Meantime, one of the vice chairmen of the Academy of Sciences was setting the wheels in motion to call in the experts who had consulted on the Los Angeles Public Library fire.

American Team Called In

Early in March, when the Academy's Vice Chairman Yevgenii Velikhov was attending a meeting of the recently established International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity, he suggested inviting in the consultants who had helped with the Los Angeles fire. Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum, who sits on the executive committee of the Foundation, was there, and acted as intermediary. On March 19 he called the L.A. Public Library to get the phone numbers of Sally Buchanan, Don Etherington and Peter Waters, and he called them the same day. Nine days later they were all in Leningrad. These three were the only foreign experts invited.

Through most of the next three and a half days, they consulted with the library staff about the next steps to take. The discussion covered both mass and individual restoration methods, as well as administrative measures for coping with the huge task of getting the library back in running order again. They discussed vacuum freeze drying, strengthening heat-embrittled books with Parylene (J. Amer. Inst. Cons. 25(1), Spring 1986: "Vapor Phase Consolidation of Books with the Parylene Polymers," by Bruce J. Humphrey), replacement and microfilming of damaged copies. Naturally everything had to be translated, but Sally Buchanan reports that it was a lively, good exchange with a lot of questions. The staff was friendly, candid and open to suggestion, but there was one suggestion that they resisted: that alternatives to individual restoration, such as replacement and microfilming, be given serious consideration. The final decision, of course, is up to them.

The Champion Of Soviet Research Collections

Dimitri S. Likhachev, the scholar whose criticisms were aired by Izvestiia February 24, expressed his fears for the safety of other great Soviet collections in his Moscow News article. He listed recent disasters and gave facts and figures supporting his concern for the half-million items in the Pushkin House, an old building with frequent accidents involving the plumbing and heating systems. (He also called for punishment of the administrators of collections that have disasters, a move that would probably encourage future coverups without improving the quality of disaster planning.)

There is no one in the U.S. who corresponds to him exactly. Jack Anderson, the reporter-columnist who specializes in exposés, sharply criticized the National Archives for the condition of the historical records in its collection (AN, April 1982, p.11) but, unlike Likhachev, has not been known for his positive suggestions. Likhachev, however, has a continuing and legitimate concern for the collections on which he and other scholars depend. He wrote up a proposal two years ago to correct the conditions of the library and museum collections in Leningrad, which was accepted in Moscow but never implemented. (It may or may not have been workable. People who have been involved in similar projects in this country know how complex they are, and how much their success depends on the expertise of the planners and the preservation awareness of those who carry out the plans.)

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