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“When a Library Burns”

May 2, 2007

On the last day of April, in separate incidents, fires ripped through two treasured city buildings in Washington, the nation’s capitol city. The first destroyed the butcher, bakery, and fishmonger stalls at Eastern Market. Hours later a second blaze claimed valuable books, leather-bound documents, and artwork at the Georgetown branch of the District of Columbia Public Library.

The Washington Post reported that 400 D.C. firefighters responded to the three-alarm fires at the neighborhood landmarks, which are about seven miles apart. No one was hurt in either blaze. Chief Dennis Rubin said he did not know what led to the fire at the library, a Georgian revival mansion known for its collections of local history.

The branch had no sprinklers, and Rubin said two of the fire hydrants closest to the library were not functioning.

Authorities said they do not think the two fires were connected. Three-alarm fires are rare in the District. Officials said it was rarer still to have two such emergencies in the same day.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty raced from one place to the other with Rubin. People in both neighborhoods were saddened by the loss of the landmarks.

In Georgetown, the 911 call came about noon. About a dozen people were inside the library when the fire started. Smoke soon billowed through the roof and across the Georgetown neighborhood. Traffic was closed off for blocks and replaced by more than twenty fire trucks. Others trucks had ladders extended through trees, trying to reach the library. Fire hoses snaked down and across the street.

The library’s archivist stood watching, heartbroken. Firefighters brought out warped and soot-covered historic paintings and documents, spreading them on plastic sheeting. The branch’s holdings include photos, maps, and paintings of the neighborhood and individual files on each home in Georgetown. The files have been donated over several decades.

Lely Constantinople sat on a stone ledge with her 4-year-old and her 5-month-old daughters watching firefighters. Children’s story hours regularly drew as many as 100 kids.

“It was invaluable,” she said. “There are so few things for kids to do in this city before they turn 2.”

Suzanne Simon watched the action with her 9-year-old daughter and her 3-year-old son.

“So many people just go out and buy books. But it’s nice to have something like this in the community. The library will be missed,” she said.

When a library burns, the loss is beyond measure. Cultural treasures and valuable documents are irreplaceable.

One of the most tragic library fires occurred in the first century. The Royal Library of Alexandria, Egypt, was destroyed by fire. Alexander the Great founded this ancient city on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The city became the capitol of the last dynasty of the Pharaohs descended from Alexander’s general Ptolemy. Ptolemy II established the Royal Library as a part of a larger museum.

It is often said that the Romans were civilized, but their most famous general was responsible for this act of vandalism. Julius Caesar was attacking Alexandria in pursuit of his archrival Pompey when he found himself about to be cut off by the Egyptian fleet.

Caesar took decisive action and sent burning ships into the harbor. His plan was a success, and the enemy fleet was quickly aflame. But the fire jumped onto the dock, which was laden with flammable materials ready for export. The inferno spread, and the Royal Library was reduced to ashes. 400,000 priceless scrolls were consumed in the blaze.

As for Caesar, he did not think it important enough to mention the destruction of the library in his memoirs. He was able to occupy the city without any trouble. His mind was on other things. The Roman general was residing in the palace with Cleopatra.

An adage from the Ivory Coast says, “The death of an elderly person is like a library burning down.” This African proverb reminds us that every person is a repository of knowledge. The wisdom of the elderly is a treasure we cannot afford to lose.

Much of what I have learned about my own genealogy came during a trip to Tennessee in 1985 with my great uncle Hugh. We went to visit three of his cousins, all octogenarians. They shared memories, both poignant and humorous. I listened and learned from their interaction. Within two years of our trip, all four had died. It was as if four libraries had burned down. But I had tape recorded six hours of conversation between four contemporaries of my grandfather, all grandchildren of my great, great grandfather. What a treasure!

In August 1996, Mrs. Lucie Foster died on her birthday at the age of 102. It was my privilege to conduct her funeral at Nazareth Presbyterian Church. Her son, Judge Miller Foster, and I had visited her together just a few months before she died. Even at the age of 101, she was alert and joyful. We sang hymns together, swapped stories, laughed together, and prayed together. At her memorial service, I shared some of her stories. I reminded the congregation that her death was like a library burning down. I encouraged them to take the time to preserve the memories, the stories, and the wisdom of the elderly.

I would encourage all of us to do the same.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, May 2007

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