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1994: Library fire wipes out historic records

Thousands of historic documents and more than 100,000 books have been destroyed in a blaze which ripped through Norwich Central Library in the early hours of this morning.

Initial reports suggest the fire was caused by a gas explosion, triggered when the caretaker switched on the lights.

He was catapulted backwards by the force of the explosion but escaped unhurt. No-one else was injured in the incident.

Archivists are currently attempting to salvage documents including the 800-year-old Norwich City Charter and manuscripts dating back as far as 1090.

These items were among more than two million documents stored in fire-proof vaults in the basement of the library which became drenched as fire-fighters attempted to extinguish the blaze.

The American Air Division Memorial Library, a unique record of the activities of US servicemen who were stationed in Norfolk during World War II, was also destroyed.

Refurbishment

At the height of the fire smoke could be seen 20 miles away and more than 65 fire officers were in attendance at the scene. The fire burned for four hours.

Mr Hilary Hammond, director of Norfolk library services, said the loss to the people of Norfolk was on the same scale as if the National Gallery in London had gone up in flames.

The library, which was opened in 1963 by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, had recently undergone a 380,000 refurbishment project.

Work included upgrading the fire protection system but a sprinkler system was ruled out because it was thought water would cause unacceptable damage in the event of a small fire.

An investigation into the cause of the fire has been launched by the fire service.

In Context
The fire at Norwich Central Library was the worst British library fire in living memory.

The building was destroyed and had to be demolished, but in November 2001 a new 63.5m state-of-the-art information centre, called The Forum, was opened on the site of the old library.

In the immediate aftermath of the blaze the local community rallied round - food companies donated refrigerated lorries to freeze-dry waterlogged manuscripts and thousands of people donated old books and pictures about Norfolk to replace the lost records.

The new library, designed by Michael Hopkins, was funded by the city council, county council and local businesses and a 31m grant from the Millennium Commission.


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