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When a Library Burns

April 25, 2011

There is a proverb from the Ivory Coast, “The death of an elderly person is like a library burning down.”

My dad and I often enjoyed having breakfast together. I took a small journal with me on those occasions so I could take notes on his many stories and his unique turn of phrase. A week after Dad’s death on April 3, 2011, I looked back through the journal. I was reminded of this story.

On April 30, 2007, fire ripped through a treasured building in Washington, D. C., the nation’s capitol. The 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 firefighters responded to the three-alarm fire.

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 two of the fire hydrants closest to the landmark were not functioning.

About a dozen people were inside the library when the fire started. No one was hurt. Smoke billowed through the roof and across the Georgetown neighborhood. Traffic was closed off for blocks, replaced by more than twenty fire trucks.

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.

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 completely destroyed. 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.

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.

When Dad died it was as if a library had burned down. He was a repository of knowledge and rare wisdom. He is gone, but I have my memories and my journal. What a treasure!

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2011
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