Friday, 2 October 2015

Tan! Teine! (Fire! Fire!)

In this week’s blog, Ruth reflects on a recent training event held by the Scottish Council on Archives (SCA) all about fire in the archive: preventing fire, and responding to it. 

The training wasn’t delivered in Welsh and Gaelic, as the blog title might suggest, but there were excellent speakers from Aberystwyth and Glasgow who talked about their experience of fire and how it impacted on their buildings, archive collections and services. They were joined by a representative from the local Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, and the day brought together a wealth of experience that those attending could draw and on and take back to their own organisations.
The day of lectures and question and answer sessions began with an introduction from Linda Ramsay, National Records of Scotland, who highlighted the role of the SCA in relation to the preservation and conservation of the nation’s archives. (If you’d like to find out more about SCA, see their website on, and for their group dedicated to preservation,
The first speaker was Iwan Bryn James from the National Library of Wales, who talked about their 2013 fire. The presentations will be made available online – so look out on the SCA website if you want to find out more - but the main thing that I took from Iwan’s talk was the need to be fully prepared: have an up-to-date plan that sets out what you would do if your building and/or collection was affected by fire, and make sure you have all the materials and kit (especially protective equipment for staff) ready to go just in case. Because they were so well-prepared, staff at the Library were able to start co-ordinating their response while the fire service was still putting out the fire – not a moment was lost, which meant that they were able to save the vast majority of the collections that were affected by the fire.
We have a robust and detailed disaster plan in place, and boxes of materials that we could use if we were ever faced with a similar situation, but Iwan’s talk gave me lots of food for thought and has resulted in a list of tweaks and minor additions that I’d like to make to our plan to make it better still!
Susannah Waters then talked about the more recent fire at Glasgow School of Art. Like Iwan, Susannah described how the fire started, what damage had been done and what their response had been (and continues to be). Also like Iwan, preparation was key to their response, but Susannah also highlighted the need to think about how you would co-ordinate offers of volunteer help and how you utilise, and react to, social media. So a few more things for me to add to my list of disaster plan tweaks!
The day finished off with Gavin Gray, an experienced firefighter, talking us through the legislation that governs fire safety and our responsibilities within it. It was extremely useful to hear from someone with a different perspective on the topic and his talk drove home the necessity for high quality, up-to-date information, that you can give the fire service on arrival, about your building’s layout and your priority collection items for salvage.
I had thought that listening to others talk about threat and damage to their wonderful collections would make for a depressing day at best and cause me a sleepless night at worst – but that was far from the case! The willingness of fellow sector professionals to share their experiences so we could all learn from them was really inspiring, and much of what they talked about was all the positives that can come from these difficult situations – a surprisingly large percentage of collections affected by fire can be repaired, community spirit can be fostered, current and new audiences can be engaged and, ultimately, resilience and value can built in to the response in order to come out as a stronger archive service.


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