From the ashes

At 7.20am on Monday August 1, 1994, a cleaner in the Norfolk and Norwich Central Library switched on a light. There was a loud bang, and two minutes later (thanks to an efficient fresh air distribution system), flames were shooting through the roof of the building. By 7.30am, eight appliances from the neighbouring fire station were on site. It took more than 150 fire fighters 12 hours to put out the fire, which, say specialists, reached 1,832degF at its seat. Paper burns at 451degF.

The story of the Norwich library fire - of the daunting problems of salvaging, restoring and replacing its priceless stock and creating a new building -force us to question the role and nature of a public library (and of print itself) as the new millenium approa-ches. It also carries a terrible warning for the librarian of even the humblest school library - and for the head of any institution that faces a fire risk. As Hilary Hammond, Norfolk's director of arts and libraries, points out: "Schools are particularly subject to arson."

Mr Hammond can only now describe without becoming emotional how his librarians had to rake through the ruins of their professional home. Clive Wilkins-Jones, in charge of the attached Norfolk Studies Library, likens the scene to a set of the film Aliens. "There was no colour anywhere. Everything was black or grey. But a few books were intact, even at the epicentre. We'd never had enough space and they were preserved simply because they'd been jammed in so tightly."

It could have been worse. A fireblock floor protected the basement, where two to three million items, some dating from the 11th century, were held by the Norfolk Record Office. There was some water damage, and the worst affected items were sent to the former nuclear research laboratory at Harwell, to be freeze-dried for conservation and later restoration.

Some 200,000 books, newspapers and recordings in the reference and lending libraries were destroyed. These included the entire lending stock apart from the 800s and 900s in the Dewey cataloguing system. All that survived of the USAAF 2nd Air Division Memorial Library (recording the US contribution to World War Two and serving as a gateway to US libraries) was one flak jacket.

But the most significant loss was in the Norfolk Studies Library. This priceless record reflected Norwich's role as England's second city until the Industrial Revolution. Around 40,000 items were reduced to a three-inch pile of ash. Many of the items were unique and therefore irreplaceable. Among them was a matchless collection of execution broadsides - 17th and 18th-century mementoes, sold as souvenirs to spectators at public hangings on Norwich castle walls.

Mercifully, not everything was destroyed. Some cabinets, fronted with heavy-duty safety glass, protected part of the local Colman Collection. And a collection of antiquarian maps was housed in metal map cabinets. Mr Wilkins-Jones recalls that these 1950s containers had turned black. "They looked like ovens. But when we lifted the lids everything was pristine." And only weeks before the fire he'd removed a collection of local photographs dating from 1854 to the top of the tower block - and safety.

Mr Wilkins-Jones is still deeply distressed. He says the worst loss from the studies library, was the catalogue. It was card-based, housed in oak drawers - now vaporised. The library had never been able to afford a copy.

But the loss had to be assessed for insurance. So with the help of a consultant, staff made a scale drawing of the library, worked out the number of books on each shelf and the number of shelves, consulted bibliographies published by the University of East Anglia - and listed 20,000 items.

The lessons are obvious. No matter how small your library, and if only for insurance purposes, you need an up-to-date copy of your catalogue. Mr Hammond begs school librarians still using card catalogues to replace wooden housing with steel, and those with computer-based catalogues to keep a back-up copy in another location. "If someone steals your PC, you're in trouble, " he warns. (Norwich was able to print a list of all books in its loan stock thanks to its electronic catalogue, which could be accessed from any branch library.)

Mr Hammond also advocates the preparation of more general disaster plans. "If your school burns down, where are you going to work? You need an administration centre on stand-by." What you can't plan for, of course, is the stress. In the aftermath, Mr Hammond was frequently tearful, often waking up after only an hour's sleep. He needed to "dump" the contents of his mind on to tape. He nearly broke down completely in August 1995 - and took his first real holiday since the blaze this Easter.

In the immediate aftermath, local branch libraries extended their opening hours and a quick-reference library was established in another location. Salvaging the remains of the stock took days. Sorting and re-cataloguing took months, with container-loads of water-damaged books being sent to a specialist firm in Falkirk for freezing (to prevent further damage) and subsequent restoration (work now coming to completion).

But within a year, a temporary lending library was up and running in a former furniture store. And by November 1995, a reference library was also in operation.

That autumn also saw the Great Norfolk Book Hunt. Organised with the region's Eastern Daily Press, BBC Radio Norfolk mounted a four-hour programme during which Mr Wilkins-Jones and his colleagues could advertise their "wish list" to replace the Norfolk Studies Library. Within a few hours, 4,000 items were donated. The total eventually rose to 14,000 (including many historic postcards, photographs and manuscripts). One prize was a rare 1749 map of the county; another was the first book ever printed in Yarmouth. The search continues, with Mr Wilkins-Jones spending much of his time reading auction catalogues and negotiating the purchase of local collections.

What proved impossible to restore (thankfully, many would say) was the 1963 "brutalist" building. Even better, public consultation revealed a desire for something other than a straight re-build to pre-fire standards. Norfolk County Council, to its credit, committed itself (and in a time of financial restraint) to spending double the amount paid out by the insurance company.

The result was a futuristic #163;79 million "Technopolis" scheme to be built on the site of the old building and an adjacent car park. It would include a "Millennium Library", a visitors' centre, a modern electronic business library, an "agora" or meeting place, a cyber caf#233; and a video suite.

The plans depended on receipt of #163;39 million from the Millennium Commission. But local opposition was considerable. Norwich South Conservatives, for example, derided the scheme as a "white elephant", and in June 1996 the bid failed. Choosing his words carefully, Mr Hammond says the commission was worried "there was not enough private sector input", and (it is rumoured) the commission "dislikes dissent".

But there seem to have been some more encouraging words. In September a second bid (for #163;32.5 million) was entered for a smaller project. By November, a detailed plan had been drawn up, again by the architects Michael Hopkins and Partners. Besides the library, it would include a business and learning centre, a "learning shop" giving advice on educational opportunities, career moves and training (to be run by a consortium led by the University of East Anglia and Norwich City College) an auditorium, a heritage centre and such added facilities as a CD-Rom production unit.

It would also serve as the hub of an electronic network reaching out across the county. The library would be arranged in seven separate subject departments (for instance, language and literature, community and science) with an easy-access branch library near the entrance offering "popular" books and recordings.

It would also have a sprinkler system. When the old building was designed, such systems (prone to going off accidentally) were deemed unsuitable for libraries. Now they are far more reliable, and technology means water damage is no longer irreversible. One happy effect of the fire has been helping the British Library settle on a system. Mr Hammond only wishes other, older libraries would update.

But hostility to the scheme remains, some of it articulated by Charles Roberts, locally influential arts editor of the Eastern Daily Press. He says there has been too little consultation (even though the method of the talks won an award from the Library Association). But he has a more worrying complaint. "Norfolk and Norwich people, being essentially conservative, don't want anything grandiose," he says. "Even ordinary people who can't play with a computer understand that what is hi-tech today will be out of date in six months."

Even though updating costs have been built into the bid and not all Norfolk people are computer-illiterate, Mr Hammond has an answer. "This is a book library, not a computer. " And, if the details are properly worked out, the scheme, with its new public square (in front of the magnificent 14th-century St Peter Mancroft church - arguably the best parish church in the UK - and close to the historic Assembly House) could form one of the best piazzas in northern Europe - as long as the politicians get their fingers out.

A verdict from the Millennium Commission had been expected by early January but it had "a heavy work load". Now it seems we must await a new Heritage Secretary - which presumably means no decision until at least the end of May. The millenium may come a little late in Norfolk.

* Next week: library supplies and reference books

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