Protecting Libraries Against Fire—and Water

Protecting Libraries Against Fire—and Water

Fire damage to a library is illustrated in this photo of part of the University of Michigan Library at Ann Arbor. Part of the roof fell into the library area

courtesy NFPA.

Type of building, shelving methods affect decisions on protective equipment and fire fighting techniques

Libraries represent major cultural and historical assets as well as surprisingly high monetary values. One of their greatest hazards, fire, can be reduced by closer cooperation between librarians and fire officials, based upon mutual understanding of each other’s problems.

Knowing that his local storehouses of knowledge are adequately bulwarked against hazards should be a source of satisfaction to a fire chief. About the only way a fire chief can strengthen his position is to build up his defenses thoroughly and to know

the inherent hazards of local occupancies, together with the values which they represent.

Unfortunately, neither hazard nor value can always be readily assessed. A petroleum bulk station might appear, on the surface, to deserve the chief’s primary concern, yet be less important than the local library from the point of view of the community at large. A well-designed and operated bulk station could offer a much lower fire hazard than a poorly housed library in a frame building. As far as values are concerned, oil and equipment can be replaced, but even small libraries often contain historical records which, if destroyed, are gone forever. Yet, unless he were adequately informed, the chief might focus his attention on the bulk station.

Safeguarding libraries has long been handicapped by the widely held but false notion that books don’t burn. It hasn’t been true ever since clay tablets passed out of the picture!

Looking at the combustibility of books and buildings as things which can be judged on the basis of wellknown facts, the vulnerability of libraries can readily be assessed in a step-by-step approach:

  1. What sort of building houses the collection? There is nothing sacrosanct in stacks of books. If they are stored, shelved, or used in a firetrap, they are exposed to danger. Sooner or later the laws of probability may catch up with them. A reasonably fire-safe building is essential to library security.
  2. How are the books stacked? If the volumes are loosely shelved, with plenty of vertical draft passages such as may easily occur in what are known as multitier stacks, there are few barriers to the rapid spread of any fire which might start. On the other hand, when books are tightly shelved on closed metal stacks (shelves) and floor-to-floor cutoffs are provided, it is amazing how slowly fires spread.
Slow-burning fire consumed only a portion of the books on wooden sheives in a Kansas City, Kans., school

photo by L. A. Egeton, courtesy American Library Assn.

Books burning in Factory Mutual Laboratories test to evaluate fires in multitier stacks with loosely shelved volumes

courtesy NFPA.

Tightly packed or loosely

Fire-loading paradox

Ordinarily, fire hazards are classified on the basis of the pounds of combustibles per square foot of floor area. It is a convenient yardstick, but not always a realistic one. For, depending upon how books are shelved, a light fire loading with a few loose books on the shelves may be more hazardous than a heavy loading with books jammed into every bit of available space. A good parallel is the way timber acts in a fire. Once it has charred over, it burns very slowly. Closely shelved books can be expected to burn like heavy timber. Just as with magazines in a bonfire, the surfaces are quickly charred. The rest of the book is consumed at a very slow rate.

In the illustration, some of the bookshelves appear pretty much intact. The books on them are undoubtedly smoke and water damaged, but they have not been reduced to ashes.

A complete study on the subject of library resource protection is now available from the American Library Association. With this as a common meeting ground, fire chiefs and librarians should be able to arrive at a firm understanding of how they can best pool their efforts to avoid fire losses.

Divided by water

The one word that signifies a division between librarians and fire chiefs over what to do in a fire is water. It characterizes two different ways of thinking.

The traditional approach of the fire services has long been to recommend the use of automatic sprinklers for every case where their use would put out a fire. If a property was unsprinklered, any sizable fire would normally be attacked by 2 1/2-inch or larger hose lines, usually with solid-stream nozzles. The basic philosophy used to be to use water, lots of it, and extinguish the fire by brute force as quickly as possible, if it was at all possible.

shelved books can result in two different types of fires

To a librarian, however, water is a horrid word. It turns a beautiful book into a sodden mass of pulp, difficult to salvage. Often librarians have felt that extinguishment could be as destructive as the flames. Such cases have occurred more than once. At Lansing, Mich., in 1951, the Michigan State Library on the first floor of the State Office Building suffered heavily from water used on a fire on the sixth and seventh stories. Not only were volumes soaked from the runoff, but the humid atmosphere permeated the books and caused them to swell. Steel shelves have been twisted and bent from the expansion of wet books. Where fire damage alone occurs, librarians have found that although books charred on the outside can sometimes be restored by careful and costly treatment, only rare volumes justify the expense. Librarians may fear water more than fire.

Lesson can be learned

While many fire chiefs have never seen a library fire, they may be educated in this area by studying photographs and a motion picture film taken at a Factory Mutual Laboratories test. This represented an extreme-hazard situation in what was a major library, but unfortunately was not representative. As may be seen, had a fire ever started in the library for whose benefit this work was done, it could have been a holocaust.

Every story has two sides. The Factory Mutual tests were intended to evaluate fires in multitier stacks with loosely shelved books. Many librarians felt these were not typical conditions.

Working in close cooperation with the Ithaca Fire Department, library authorities at Cornell University ran another test in which modern library construction was simulated with closely packed books on steel shelves. As would be expected, the effect of limiting air access to the surface of the books held the fire to a low level, so much so that in about the same elapsed time that the Norwood, Mass., fire was raging fiercely, the Cornell fire was about to go out.

A striking confirmation of how books can resemble heavy timber construction in burning, as previously mentioned, was seen in a Kansas City, Kan., school library fire, caused by arson. Here the fire consumed the upper right portion of a wooden bookcase, with little or no damage to the rest of the books in the 45-minute period which elapsed before discovery. Water fog was used for extinguishment, and while most of the low-value books were discarded because of smoke odors they could have been salvaged had it been worth while.

Places for sprinklers

These are the facts. What conclusions should be drawn or actions taken?

If a well-qualified librarian, concerned for the fire safety of his collection, were to meet with a fire protection expert, one subject certain to be discussed would be the installation of automatic sprinklers. Enough experience has been gained to make reasonable decisions as to where sprinklers are justified. They would be desirable for:

  1. Library buildings of wood frame construction.
  2. Libraries in areas not protected by an organized fire department or located more than 5 miles from the nearest fire station.
  3. Library buildings with highly combustible interior finish.
  4. Libraries in basements or other building areas where access might be difficult for effective fire fighting.
  5. Library buildings of combustible construction within areas with a high incidence of arson.
  6. Library areas with more than ordinary hazards, such as storage and work areas, carpenter shops, paint shops, printing shops, bookmobile storage, servicing rooms, garages, etc.

In reviewing the list, it will be seen that there is nothing unique about it. Ordinary building hazards which would warrant sprinklers do not disappear simply because the building is used for books. The installation, however, requires special attention to dispose of water from a sprinkler discharge and avoid unnecessary water damage. Unless this is done, putting sprinklers in a library may only substitute one hazard for another.

There are many conditions which reduce or eliminate the justification for automatic sprinklers. They are:

  1. A building of fire-resistant or noncombustible construction in a location with good public fire protection.
  2. Division of the building into relatively small areas by fire walls and fire doors.
  3. Elimination of vertical draft conditions and prevention of upward fire propagation by horizontal barriers such as continuous fire-resistive floors and enclosure of vertical openings.
  4. Minimum use of combustible materials.
  5. Installation of a central station detection and alarm system properly supervised and maintained.
  6. Installation of protective devices such as automatic fire doors, air circulation cutoffs and first aid fire safety equipment.
  7. Careful supervision of library operations, including control of smoking and good housekeeping practices.
  8. Periodic fire inspections.

Acceptable risk

To the extent that all or most of these conditions are satisfied, the elimination of a sprinkler system could become an acceptable risk.

The ideal solution would be to positively prevent any fire from starting. Since this is somewhat unrealistic in a building used by human beings, the need to stop fires without unnecessary water damage is paramount in libraries. If a teacup of water will do the job, a bathtubful should not be used. A spray nozzle for pressurized water extinguishers would be valuable for library installations. Manufacturers have indicated that such a nozzle would be offered if enough customer demand appeared.

Any hose lines used in libraries should be no greater than lK-inch and be fitted with fog shutoff nozzles. When working among book stacks, water fog should be used at close range in a pinpoint attack against fire rather than relying upon an artillery barrage technique from a distance with a straight stream.

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