This August marks 25 years since the fire at Norwich Central Library which took place on 1 August 1994. At the time the archives of the Norfolk Record Office were kept in the basement strongroom of the library with some additional strongroom accommodation and a separate microform searchroom available at Norwich’s old Shirehall. Norfolk Record Office staff are often asked how much of the collection was destroyed by the fire. Fortunately, the NRO did not lose a single document but approximately 10% of the archive’s holdings were water-damaged. When considering the record office holds over 11.5 million documents, this was a significant amount of the collection, and it posed many problems for the conservation team.
The post fire programme
After the fire, the conservation section began its biggest challenge. Once the archives had been salvaged from the building, the first issue was to get the material dry. Documents were either dried in a warehouse at Ber St. (using fans, de-humidifiers and washing lines) or the very wet material was packed into refrigerated containers which then went on to be dried out at Harwell, a specialist restoration service based in Oxfordshire.
The speed at which documents had been moved meant that items were placed on shelves in no particular order, so a shelf list was produced and from there a basic conservation survey could be conducted.
Surveying was carried out in the morning with data entry in the afternoon. The purpose was to record the document reference number, the format of the document (for example volume, parchment, map, bundle), the quantity and the level of damage. The surveys were completed in very poor conditions and by a large number of people, including those from outside the conservation team, so the descriptions for the level of damage varied. The survey did however give a good indication of what needed further investigation and when things had quietened down a bit the conservation team went back to individually survey damaged items. The survey also helped with collecting a representative selection of damaged items that could be used for pricing the conservation work that would be needed and for estimating how much insurance money the Norfolk Record Office would need to try and claim.
A “Three Pronged Approach”
The insurance fund for the repair and rebinding of water-damaged records enabled the Norfolk Record Office to have some of the conservation work carried out by selected outside contractors. From the survey it was possible to prioritise the conservation work and a list was drawn up, mainly of large collections of extensively damaged material, to go out to contract.
Due to the amount of material damaged by the fire the conservation team took a three-pronged approach to the conservation task.
In house: In-house conservation was carried out for high value, more vulnerable or more challenging material.
High-volume outside contractor: Commercial conservation firms were used for large quantities of items with consistent damage, usually in mass-produced bindings.
Low-volume outside contractor: Low volume contractors would be used for batches of single items needing different treatments. For example, more vulnerable documents with decorative bindings.
From 1995-1996 documents started to be sent out to contractors for conservation.
Conservation at the Norfolk Record Office and new working methods
In the period directly after the fire, the Shirehall searchroom remained open and provided the focus for a curtailed public service. The conservation team were able to work in a small conservation studio in the Shire Hall chambers to begin post-fire in-house work. Initially, the conservation team concentrated on the material of private depositors before dividing their work into two distinct programmes: the ordinary conservation programme and the post-fire conservation programme which dealt with items specifically damaged by water.
The post-fire conservation programme challenged the Conservation Section to work in new and innovative ways: new equipment was purchased which allowed the team to develop new methods of conservation, new management and administration systems were developed for outsourcing conservation work and the Norfolk Record Office can now advise on disaster recovery.
The conservation team also developed the Norfolk Book Sofa, which is used in the searchroom as a book support and as an alternative to foam wedges which could be tricky for researchers to set up. The book sofas allow differing sizes and shapes of books to be supported and are filled with flame retardant polystyrene beads so it can mould to the shape of the book. Made under license by P.E.L, the Norfolk Book Sofas can now be seen in archives across the UK with the Norfolk Record Office receiving a royalty for each one sold.
A suction table and humidification chamber were two of the new pieces of equipment purchased with the insurance money. It was originally all in one, but the conservation team found that the suction table was pooling with water so had another table made to hold the dome. This allows parchment documents to be treated much more easily and with better results.
The creation of The Archive Centre
Of courses, one of the biggest changes to take place as a result of the fire was the building of a new archive centre, which opened to the public in 2003.
In the period directly after the fire, the Shirehall searchroom remained open and provided the focus for a curtailed public service throughout the period of recovery from the disaster, including two major moves. The records rescued from the library’s basement strongroom were transferred to a temporary store within 10 days of the fire and a year later they were moved to adapted premises at Gildengate House, where the NRO re-opened.
During this time a plan was being discussed and formed for a new Norfolk Record Office and East Anglian Studies Centre, which was to be based at the University of East Anglia (UEA). The county council and UEA put in a joint bid for Heritage Lottery funding for this project at the end of January 1997, but it was rejected later that year.
In October 1998 a new joint bid for Heritage Lottery support was submitted and in December 2000 a grant of up to £4,186,000 was awarded. This was towards the construction and fitting out of a new Archive Centre adjacent to County Hall in Norwich. The Archive Centre opened to the public in November 2003 and was officially opened by the Queen on 5 February 2004.
An archive for the 21st century
The Archive Centre contained a new conservation studio, three strongrooms on separate floors and a larger searchroom amongst other facilities.
In the strongrooms most maps are stored flat in large plan chests. Some of the largest maps are still on open racks but are now wrapped in Tyvek, a waterproof and dustproof material. Before the fire in Norwich Central Library the maps may not have had a wrapping at all, and they suffered as water poured down from above through ducting and expansion joints in the ceiling. Boxes had proved to be excellent protection from the water and the Norfolk Record Office used about 4,000 Ryder boxes in the immediate aftermath of the fire. As part of the post-fire re-boxing programme over 50,000 boxes have been used since and today the record office even has its own box-making machine!
Since opening, The Archive Centre has received many accolades and has been described as one of the most modern archive buildings in Europe. Its facilities have enabled the NRO to develop services, including programmes of exhibitions, education and outreach, both within The Archive Centre and across Norfolk.
The NRO has been awarded Accredited Archive status by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association. It also holds the status of being a TNA-approved repository for Public Records, is designated as a place of deposit for tithe and manorial documents and is the Diocesan Record Office for Diocese of Norwich.
In 2005, the NRO became the first county record office to have all its collections designated as being of outstanding importance by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (now Arts Council England).
More information on the history of Norfolk Record Office can be read on our website:
Barton-Wood – Sara, Through Fire and Flood – Saving Norfolk’s Archives, Poppyland Publishing, 2014. This publication gives a more detailed chronicle of the fire and the events that followed. A copy can be read in the NRO searchroom.
A special exhibition ‘Flames to Forum: The Norwich Library Fire 25 Years On‘ will take place at the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library on Saturday 21st September 2019 from 10.30am-3.30pm as part of Heritage Open Days.