A tragedy of immense proportions struck Brazil on the night of September 2. Its National Museum was consumed by flames, a fire so great that almost nothing was left but the shell of the building. Flames leapt from virtually every window and through the roof. Early estimates were that 90% of what was inside was lost. Much of what survived was in a separate annex building. There is hope that a few more durable items will be found when sifting through the debris. Perhaps the oldest known skeleton of a human from America will be found. However, even rock and fossil collections are not likely to have survived as the intense heat can deform even these.
There is some good news for those whose interests are focused on books and paper documents. The central library was located in the annex which was spared. However, that doesn't mean all such paper survived. Books and other paper part of special collections were also housed within the main building. The Francesca Keller Library of 37,000 items pertaining to social anthropology was housed in the main building. If the heat was such that even fossils are not likely to have survived, paper will be nothing but ashes. It is the paper within the collections that is believed to be part of what fueled the fire and enabled it to spread so rapidly. By the time the fire department arrived, there was little hope, a problem exacerbated by fire hydrants that did not work.
The sad reality is that the National Museum of Brazil has not been well cared for. Budget cuts had left it vulnerable to numerous sorts of catastrophe. Maintenance was mostly ignored. At times, it had to close to the public for lack of funds. The enormous amount of money spent on hosting the 2016 Olympics in Rio further reduced available funds. The museum's plight was ignored for years. Now it is too late.
The day after the fire, large crowds of people gathered to protest the government's neglect of its treasures. Some described it as the loss of the history of Brazil, so much of its past, going back to the times of pre-history, was lost.
There is a message in all this to libraries across the world. It is unlikely that many substantial libraries in the West are in quite the state of neglect as was the museum of Brazil. However, smaller libraries, and many in less prosperous countries, undoubtedly face risks similar to those of the National Museum of Brazil. Obviously, greater care is a necessity. Fire damage isn't the only risk, as other calamities, from floods to theft plague libraries everywhere. Books are not the easiest of things to preserve. Still, no amount of care can guarantee the survival of delicate material for all eternity. Old books can only slowly disappear. They cannot be replaced. It is not a total solution, but the digitization of old books, and particularly one-of-a-kind documents and manuscripts, is critical to their survival. It is not the same as holding the original piece of paper, but it can preserve the words and the images. This process has been going on through the current century, but it needs to continue until every historic document has been digitally preserved. Otherwise, it may be just a matter of time.