Fire and flood are two of the possible catastrophes that face archives. Even in an archive that meets all the modern requirements for storage there is the possibility that something could go horribly wrong, and realistically, most archives will not be in state-of-the-art facilities. In 1994 faulty wiring in a light fitting led to a catastrophic fire in Norwich Central Library, which housed not only the library but also the Norfolk Record Office.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)
This article describes what happened on the night, and includes a photograph of firemen carrying documents from the building. The archives were stored in the basement where they largely escaped the fire, but not the water that was used to extinguish it. For most items water damage is recoverable. The trick is to stabilise the documents as soon as possible by freeze drying them, then to thaw them out and dry them under controlled conditions. Specialist firms provide freeze drying and storage facilities for archives that have suffered disasters, and larger archives are likely to have a contract for emergency support if needed. For the Norfolk Record Office the story had a happy ending, with a new purpose-built Norwich Archive Centre opening in 2004.
Fire and flood are not the only disasters that can strike archives. The most lethal threat to documents is war. Wars and revolutions are often accompanied by the deliberate destruction of archives. During the French Revolution many of the records of the old regime were destroyed by the mob, in 1943 the archives of the medieval Kingdom of Naples were lost when the Germans set fire to the country villa where they had been taken for safety, and in the 1970s the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia embarked on a programme of systematic destruction. These are just a few of many examples. Archives can also suffer collateral damage during wartime. In 1940 half the military service records for British soldiers who served in the First World War were destroyed in a bombing raid which hit the War Office repository in London, a misfortune which has frustrated many genealogists.
This 71 page UNESCO report lists all the libraries and archives known to have been destroyed in the 20th century. Causes of destruction range from an earthquake which destroyed the Imperial University Library in Tokyo in 1923 to the floods which filled the basement of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence in 1966. Irreplaceable archives continue to disappear in the 21st century. I have no doubt that the civil war in Syria and the actions of ISIS will have added to the destruction. Also, accidents happen. In 2009 work on a new subway line caused a building collapse which reduced the six story Historical Archive of the City of Cologne in Germany to this:
© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)
All archives should have a salvage plan so that if they are unlucky enough to experience a catastrophic event as much can be saved as possible. Many of us also have our own family archives. What would happen to them in the event of fire or flood? Food for thought!