Saturday, October 29, 2011


Perils of Fire and Water

Part XIX of Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1931; rpt. New York: Avenel Books, 1981) is devoted to "The Misfortunes of Books," and Section IV of that part bears the heading "Perils of Fire and Water" (pp. 426-429). An entire book could be written on the subject. Jackson didn't mention, for example, fires at the Library of Congress in 1814 (started by the British) and in 1851.

For a vivid account of an attempt to rescue books from a library threatened by fire, see Morgan Poitiaux Robinson, The Burning of the Rotunda: Being a Sketch of the Partial Destruction of the University of Virginia, 1895 (1905; rpt. Richmond: F.J. Mitchell Ptg. Co., 1921), pp. 14-15:
Of course all of us have heard of the noble heroism of the women of our Southland, but those of us who were fortunate enough to be around here that day saw more than one living example of it. They kicked the glass doors out of the bookcases,—in many instances breaking it out with their bare hands,—and worked side by side with the men long after the fire was in the Library. The boys would get down on their knees and hold out their arms, while the women piled the books as high as they could reach on the outstretched arms; or again, the men would fill the women's silken (for it was Sunday) skirts with books and in each case the one carrying the books would take them to the window opposite the only door to the Library (the window just above the front entrance to the Library of today) and dump them down to the portico of the Rotunda, while others on the portico would carry them down to the Lawn and away from further danger. At first the men had tried to drive the women away, telling them that they would save all the books, etc., but they would not go, but worked everywhere that the men worked,—even in the bucket-lines.
("Noble heroism" indeed, especially since just a year before the fire the University's Board of Visitors had voted against the admission of women. Not until 1970 did the University admit women as undergraduate students.)

Fewer than a third of the volumes stored in the Rotunda were rescued from the fire, but thanks to public funds and private donations, much of the collection was restored. Today the various libraries of the University of Virginia house over five million books. With one of those libraries, Alderman Library, I was once well-acquainted. I worked in its acquisition department, not only throughout my years in graduate school, but also for a couple of years after I received my degree.

Public collections, with effort and determination, can be reconstructed after partial or even total destruction, but what of the loss of an individual scholar's library? I was saddened to learn recently of the damage caused by fire and water to Dr. Robert J. O'Hara's collection of books, painstakingly acquired over a lifetime. Read his moving account here.

Related post: Bookless.

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