Main principles of fire protection in libraries and archives: a ramp study

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<> Main principles of fire protection in libraries and archives: A RAMP study
Prepared by Irina G. Shepilova

Edited by Adrienne G. Thomas

General Information Programme and UNISIST

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Original : English

Paris, November 1992

Recommended catalogue entry :

Shepilova, Irina G.

Main principles of fire protection in libraries and archives : a RAMP study / prepared by Irina G. Shepilova ; edited by Adrienne G. Thomas [for the] General Information Programme and UNISIST. Paris, UNESCO, 1992. - V, 25 p. ; 30 cm. (PGI-92/WS/14)
I - Thomas, Adrienne G.

II - Title

III - UNESCO. General Information Programme and UNISIST

IV - Records and Archives Management Programme (RAMP)

© - UNESCO, 1992

<> Contents

Basic principles of fire protection in libraries and archives
1. Combustibility characteristics of information media in Libraries and Archives
2. Interrelation between environmental conditions for document storage and fire safety
3. Fire prevention measures
4. Requirements for fire detection and fire fighting equipment

<> Preface

In order to better meet the needs of Member States, developing countries in particular, in the specialized areas of archives administration and records management, the Division of the General Information Programme (PGI) has developed a long-term Records and Archives Management Programme (RAMP).

The basic themes of RAMP reflect and contribute to the overall objectives of the General Information Programme. RAMP therefore includes projects, studies and other activities intended to:
- to create awareness and promote understanding, among and within governments of Member States, of the value and usefulness of records and archives as basic information resources;
- to assist countries, upon request, in the organization and development of records and archives management systems and services necessary for the full and effective utilization of these basic information resources;
- to promote and assist in the advancement and dissemination of knowledge through the training of professionals in the field of archives and records management as the basis for solid archival policies and development.
RAMP activities concentrate on: infrastructure development; training and education; protection of the archival heritage; promotion of the development and application of modern information technologies and research in archival theory and practice.
This study, prepared by Irina Shepilova under contract with the International Council on Archives, (ICA) is intended to present an analysis of fire hazards in libraries and archives, highlighting the most effective methods of extinguishing fires whilst ensuring that a minimum amount of damage is caused by these methods.
This study is a survey of fire protection measures for archives and libraries. It is not a technical study of specialized fire prevention problems and does not claim to be a complete study of the subject, but it does intend to draw attention to the problem of protecting invaluable collections of archives and library holdings from destruction by fire.
Comments and suggestions regarding the study are welcome and should be addressed to the Division of the General Information Programme, UNESCO, 7, Place de Fontenoy, 75700 Paris, France.
Other studies prepared under the RAMP programme may be obtained at the same address.

<> Foreword

This study is an analysis of fire hazards affecting safety in libraries and archives. Its purpose is to highlight the most effective methods of putting out fires while ensuring that the method selected does as little damage as possible to the varied media found among library and archives holdings.

We hope that officials who are responsible for protecting valuable archival and library collections will find the information compiled in this study useful in carrying out their very important task. It should not, however, be restricted to those whose jobs are directly responsible for fire protection within these institutions. The archivists, librarians, and technical support personnel who work in archives and libraries should be aware of the actions that should be taken in their everyday work to ensure that these materials are protected from fire hazards. This study can also be used by those archival and library personnel who are involved in designing a new building, rehabilitating an existing one, or evaluating the suitability of a building proposed to house library materials or archives.
Many countries have regulations or standards that define construction requirements aimed at reducing the threat of fire damage in buildings which are to be used as libraries and archives. Coupled with the construction standards are operational procedures spelling out fire prevention rules to be followed within these institutions. These building requirements and fire prevention procedures vary from country to country reflecting local practices and technological capabilities.
This study summarizes the experience of developed countries in protecting libraries and archives from fire damage. It attempts to highlight the main trends in fire protection and summarize operational differences which may influence the selection of specific fire prevention and fire fighting techniques.

<> Basic principles of fire protection in libraries and archives

Fires may result from natural phenomena such as lightning or earthquakes, or from such unnatural events as wars, terrorist activities, or arson. However, the primary threat of fire in libraries and archives is caused when fire safety rules are ignored or not adopted in the first place.
The most common causes of fires in libraries and archives are due to violations of fire safety rules as they relate to the maintenance of the structure itself or personnel operations within the buildings. Older buildings which have been adapted for use as libraries or archives are particularly susceptible to structural problems which leave them at risk to fire. The structural integrity of the building can easily be breached at roofs, windows, basements, walls, and doors. They are also more likely to have electrical wiring in which the insulation has deteriorated and become a fire hazard. The outbreak of a sudden fire in a building which appears to have a good fire prevention plan in operation is most often traceable to deficient electrical wiring. It is, therefore, extremely important that defective wiring be replaced quickly and that precautions be taken to ensure that wiring is not damaged when maintenance work is underway close to the wiring.
The use of open fire near the library or archives collections is also highly dangerous. The risk of fire is greatly increased when maintenance work requires the use of welding or soldering torches. But, less obvious dangers such as portable space heaters, lights on extension cords, hot plates, and coffee makers are also fire hazards. Allowing staff to smoke in the records storerooms or at their workstations where they are working with archival records is one of the most obvious preventable fire risks.
General housekeeping practices are also important to a good fire prevention programme. While paper and other trash littered around a records storeroom may not be the initial cause of a fire, the debris can help the fire spread extremely fast within the area. The collection of dust in heating and ventilation ducts can also contribute to the rapid spread of fire throughout a building even though the fire has been quickly brought under control at its place of origin.
Although storerooms contain a high volume of combustible material, laboratories (both restoration and duplication), building support areas (such as electrical, carpentry, and paint shops), and boiler rooms present the highest risk of fire because of the nature of the work performed in these areas and the types of materials used.
Fires in libraries and archives cause two types of damage: material loss of the collections and perhaps the building; and, social damage. Fires which start in records storerooms usually result in far more damage to the contents than those started in other areas because of the high concentration of combustible material per unit of floorspace. Additionally, for the most part the contents of most buildings are replaceable by equally serviceable and attractive furnishings.
Archives, on the other hand, cannot be replaced. Once they have been destroyed, they are lost forever. With libraries, some of the collection may be replaceable or at least available to the public at another library. But even in libraries, some portion of their collection of materials will not be replaceable and duplicates will not be found elsewhere. This part of society's history will be lost forever to succeeding generations. Society has suffered some extraordinary losses from ancient times to the present, from the fire at the Alexandria Library to the fire at the Library of the Academy of Sciences in the former Soviet Union.
The cost of restoring documents and books damaged in fire is a substantially greater than what would be spent to store the materials under the best fire protection conditions. For the loss of irreplaceable information, there is no remedy, only the untold damage to society caused by its loss. While it is not possible to assure total fire protection of records and books in archives and libraries, it is possible to provide a very high level of fire protection that would normally limit the potential loss of records in such facilities to a small amount. It is, therefore, important that the archivist or librarian knows the degree of protection available or, conversely, the degree of potential damage from the fire protection systems available for archives and libraries.

<> 1. Combustibility characteristics of information media in Libraries and Archives

1.1 Paper
Paper based documents and books make up the bulk of the holdings of libraries and archives. The paper used in documents and books in libraries and archives has been produced at very different times and has therefore, been manufactured using a variety of techniques and ingredients. Paper composed of cotton was used for writing and book printing until the end of the 19th century. Low-grade cellulose paper, such as newsprint, which has a high woodpulp content, was used extensively in more recent years.
Since paper-based documents can ignite from open flames (e.g. from sparks caused by defective electrical wiring, or a carelessly thrown match or cigarette), the chances that the documents will ignite depend on the intensity and duration of the heat released from the source of the flame.
The rate of combustion during a fire depends on the ratio between the combustion-surface area of the books and documents, the volume of the combustibles, how tightly they are shelved, their position in relation to the heat source, etc. Archives use various shelf filing equipment normally with the records either contained simply in file folders or in various styles of open or closed cartons. Typically, rows of records face each other across long service aisles about 762 mm in width. The exposed faces present a wall of paper. Paper has an ignition temperature of approximately 232 degrees Celsius. With open containers or exposed files, the loose ends of the papers or the edge of the file folders can be ignited almost instantly by any source. Because of their mass, closed cartons resist ignition slightly longer.
1.2 Cine Film
The highest fire risk is posed by motion picture film recorded on cellulose nitrate. The most dangerous aspects of cellulose nitrate motion picture film are its ease of ignition, its very high rate of combustion, and its extremely poisonous combustion gases. As a practical matter, therefore, cellulose nitrate film should not be stored in an archives or library. If it is not possible to copy the film on to a safety base film immediately, the cellulose nitrate film should be stored in a separate building in a vault especially constructed to store the nitrate film as safely as possible.
Cellulose nitrate film decomposes readily when heated to temperatures above ambient, but below its ignition temperature. The quantity of heat produced by decomposition is such that, if not dissipated, it rapidly raises the temperature of the film to the ignition point. Even local heating can raise the temperature of the film to a dangerous level, initiating decomposition in the entire mass. Cellulose nitrate also contains enough oxygen within its molecule so that decomposition or combustion proceeds rapidly, even in a limited air supply. A fire in cellulose nitrate film, therefore, cannot be extinguished by smothering.
Cellulose nitrate film is not itself explosive. Its ignition temperature is generally given as about 149 degrees Celsius, but the exact value depends on the duration of exposure, size and purity of film, and other factors. Improperly cared for nitrate film has caused fires after several hours storage at temperatures as low as 49 degrees Celsius. Also, spontaneous ignition is believed to have been responsible for a number of nitrate film fires that have occurred in storage vaults in the summer, following periods of 46 degrees Celsius weather. The rate of combustion of nitrate film is about 15 times that of wood in any form, so that the heat evolved per minute is initially much greater. This results is a rapid temperature increase and a very intense fire. A nitrate film fire burns so fiercely and spreads so quickly that it is virtually impossible to control or extinguish it except by automatic sprinklers.
If cellulose nitrate is ignited and allowed to burn freely in excess air, the gases given off are colourless and are chiefly nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapour, none of which is poisonous or explosive. If, however, the air supply is restricted, as is always the case where the nitrate film is in rolls, the film burns with or without flame, producing copious quantities of thick, yellow smoke. These gases are extremely poisonous and may form explosive mixtures with air. The gases given off by burning nitrate film include nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide and tetroxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and methane. Traces of hydrogen cyanide have also been detected, but not in significant amounts.
New nitrate film is as stable as it is possible to make it and some nitrate films 30 or 40 years old still appear to be in reasonably good condition. However, all nitrate film deteriorates with age and the deterioration is increased by chemical contamination and improper storage conditions. Nitrate film in an advanced stage of deterioration is less stable, ignites at lower temperatures, and is more likely to ignite spontaneously than new film.
As was stated previously, all nitrate film should be copied on to a safety base film and the original film should be disposed. However, if cellulose nitrate films must be kept for some period of time until they can be copied, they should be carefully examined throughout their length prior to being stored in a vault. Further, they should be re-examined periodically. For moderate storage temperatures and where both temperature and humidity are controlled, inspections should be made at least once annually. Where conditions are not controlled, examinations should be made every six months. In tropical climates, inspections should occur every two to three months.
Motion pictures recorded on triacetate film, on diacetate film or on polyethylene terephtalate film provide a more stable and safe film base. Each of these film bases meet the requirements of international standards on the safety of cine film. The requirements provide that a film is considered safe if it ignites with difficulty (i.e. after being kept for more that 10 minutes at t degrees = 300 ± 3 degrees Celsius), if it burns slowly (a specimen 300 mm long and 0.08 mm thick burning for 45 seconds), and if the nitrogen content of the film case does not exceed 0.36 by weight.
The following table provides information, obtained in the course of tests performed in accordance with standardized international methodology, which may help compare the combustibility properties of different cine films.
Table 1. Combustibility properties of various cine films


Film specimen t degrees Ignition Duration of Nitrogen

of test time burn, see. content percent

base film


Cellulose nitrate 302 7 see. 5 14 11.4

black & white

positive film

Triacetate black 300 12 min. 25 does 0.0

& white positive 40 sec. not

film chars burn

Triacetate 299 12 min. 52 67 0.15

colour 50 sec.

positive film chars

Triacetate 300 12 min. -- does 0.14

colour 30 see. not

positive film chars bum

1.3 Magnetic Tapes
Magnetic tape is practically noncombustible. To ignite the polymer materials of which magnetic tape is composed, the tape has to be exposed to a much higher percentage of oxygen than is found in atmospheric air.
Studies of the effects of fire and high temperature on magnetic tape based on polyethylene terephtalate support has shown the results presented in Table 2.
Table 2. Effect of high temperature on magnetic films


Test Change of properties Defects of a

temperature of the film support document recorded

Celsius (base) on magnetic tape


120 Scorching of the base Distorted


150 Softening of support Neighboring

and binder reel coils stick together

290 Support becomes darker

and more brittle

540 Tape chars


1.4 Magnetic Discs
Magnetic and optical discs used to store computer information are manufactured on various support materials (e.g. polymers, aluminum, etc.) which have different inherent properties. When assessing magnetic and optical discs from the standpoint of fire safety, it should be noted that disc manufacturers have certified the upper temperature limit for discs at +65 degrees Celsius. At higher temperatures the physical properties of the medium change, just as the properties of the magnetic layer and the casing change.
As with magnetic tapes which use a polymer support base, magnetic and optical discs do not catch fire at temperatures in excess of 500 degrees Celsius, therefore, they are not dangerous as a fire transfer medium. However, a 100 per cent loss of information takes place in case of fire in a magnetic disc storeroom because of the heat damage to the discs. Therefore, the properties of the information storage media which make them more or less subject to damage from a fire must guide archivists and librarians when determining the level of fire protection required. Magnetic and optical discs should be stored in separate vaults used to store only that specific type of record, and the highest level of fire protection techniques should be used to protect the discs.

<> 2. Interrelation between environmental conditions for document storage and fire safety

2.1 Norms for environmental storage conditions for documents produced on different media
The physical environment in records and book storerooms must be evaluated by a variety of factors, the most important of which are the characteristics of the microclimate, i.e., the air temperature (t degrees Celsius) in the room and the relative air humidity (H. per cent). Considered together with the dustiness of the room air, these factors have a significant impact on fire safety in each storeroom, as well as in the library or archives building as a whole.
The standards for temperature, humidity, and other physical environmental conditions in the storeroom should be established by determining the optimum long-range storage conditions for the records being stored there. The requirements will vary according to the media upon which the information is recorded.
An optimum storage regime is assigned to each kind of information medium, based on its physical and chemical properties. Consequently, the norms for physical environmental conditions in storerooms are very similar in one country or another.
Commonly accepted norms for storage of information recorded on different media are displayed in Table 3.
Table 3. Basic norms for storage conditions for documents produced on different media


Storage media Conditioned Environment

temperature/Celsius % relative humidity


1. Paper base1 20 ± 1 45 ± 5

2. Magnetic tape 18 ± 1 40 ± 5

3. Glass plate photos 15 ± 1 35 ± 5

4. Black & white 15 ± 1 30 + 5³

film1 2

5. Colour film1 2 -1 ± 1 30 ± 5³



(1) Phonograph prints are classified as: paper base. Cine film and microfilm are classified under black and white or colour film.

(2) Storage requirements for cellulose nitrate and acetate film are the same. However, nitrate film should be copied as quickly as possible and disposed of. It should not be stored in an archives or library.

(3) Some conservators believe that the relative humidity should be set al 35 ± 5


2.2 The significance of climatic characteristics on fire safety
The climatic characteristics of a region have primary effect on the preservation of records in archives and libraries. There is a relationship between a region's climate and some specific fire hazards for archives or libraries.
The ignition and spread of fire through a building can occur anywhere, but hot climates can contribute to these fire hazards. Since chemical processes run at faster rates in hotter environments, these climates present a bigger danger for those archives and libraries which still have cellulose nitrate film in their collections, particularly if they are kept in non-conditioned storage areas. The same film in non-conditioned storage conditions in a more moderate climate could remain stable for a longer period of time.
Hot climates tend to have larger and more diverse populations of rodents and insects which can infest libraries and archives. Rodents can be particularly destructive to electrical wiring, damaging the insulation thus causing an electrical fire hazard. Termites or other insects which undermine the structural elements of a building may so weaken the interior supports that if a fire were to start it could spread quickly causing parts of the building to collapse thereby allowing the fire to spread throughout the structure.
2.3 Ways of maintaining the environment (climatic) conditions in library and archives buildings. Evaluating their effect on fire safety.
The heating and ventilation systems used in library and archives buildings provide storage conditions which can be categorized in one of the following three groups:
(a) completely conditioned storage environment; this can be provided by air-conditioning systems and air filtration (cleaning) systems;
(b) partially conditioned storage environment; this can be provided by warm-air heating, so that the storage environment conditions can be adjusted only by heating the air supplied to the storerooms. The air can also be cleaned by means of special filters. Both the completely conditioned and partially conditioned environmental systems can operate using greater or smaller amounts of outside air, thus limiting the volume of air that must be filtered to remove dust and harmful gases.
(c) non-conditioned storage environment; this is the case when central heating is used in the building and exhaust ventilation is used in the storerooms.
The level of environmental conditions established for libraries and archives may depend on the importance of the collections, the quantity, and the climatic conditions of the area. The former Soviet Union established norms for the construction of libraries and archives using an evaluation of the significance of the materials to be stored in a specific library or archive to determine the level of storage to be provided. The location of a new building in a moderate or hot climate will also be a factor in the decision process.
Fire safety in buildings has much to do with the choice of systems used to condition storage areas and their ability to maintain proper storage conditions in those buildings. Failure to provide proper storage conditions is potentially more dangerous in terms of fire hazards in hot climates than in cold or moderate climates. Therefore, when evaluating the extent of fire hazard in libraries and archives as they are influenced by climate, one must consider the effect of the external environment and whether or not the internal storage environment has been conditioned to mitigate the potential effect of the external environment on the holdings of archives and libraries.

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