Fire is many a librarian’s worst nightmare. David Buri, Academic Liaison Librarian at Glasgow School of Art, gave us a personal and moving account of the fire in May 2014 at the Mackintosh Library and its aftermath. He spoke with humour and frankness about the experience – joking that his presentation could be seen as a therapy session!
David began by describing the library and how it was being used at the time of the fire. We saw images of the unique interior and its famous furnishings. Students were being encouraged to experiment with the space and installations, poetry readings and music events were taking place alongside more traditional use of the collections.
These innovative scenes contrasted starkly with the shocking images of the immediate aftermath of the fire, everything reduced to a charred “tangled mess of books and remains of furniture,” the unexpected amount of debris as upsetting as the destruction. The Fire Chief gave a chilling description of the fire’s spread “like a monster in the Alien film, running around in the ducts so you never know where it’s going.” David praised the Fire Services’ support and they were awarded honorary medals at GSA’s graduation ceremony.
For the librarians it was a painful double blow losing the fabric of the building and the collection itself – the single survivor of 8000 items, an illustrated travel book “Sights and Scenes in fair Japan.” The GSA’s archive was in controlled storage and largely unaffected, although is now in deep storage.
Many hands contributed to the original salvage effort, captured poignantly in a photo of two men in hi-vis jackets carrying out an empty charred frame. An archaeological team came later to investigate remains and get material to aid exact reconstructions, though there was sadly little it would prove practical for conservators to restore. The Head of Library convened an Extraordinary Committee and Plan who continued to meet regularly to tackle practical issues, especially ensuring that students not adversely affected.
David spoke about the unexpected impact of Social Media and the need to respond systematically and sensitively to communications. He detailed the pressure of dealing with the media, for example not enjoying the moment when the discovery of a Mackintosh letter in a donation led him to a television spot. He revealed the stress of having to relive traumatic events publically, when he just wanted to get on with his job.
Most heartening was David’s description of support from Glaswegians, libraries, academics, and book lovers from around the world offering assistance. Although some donations had to be tactfully refused, others like those of the elderly lady from Paisley whose grandfather had studied at GSA, were gratefully received.
David was reassured that books and libraries were still powerful in people’s lives, especially around the idea of memory. The #MackLibMemories campaign allows those associated with the original library to record their memories and the Library Treasures Blog showcases donations received. Donations are being digitised where possible, re-sharing with community that supported them. The up-to-date wants list and collections policy are available online.
In the summer of 2015 the “huge void” of the gutted building presents a fascinating opportunity to build a new collection, not simply replace the old, developing specialisms, supporting GSA research, such as architecture and early film. The appointment of local Glasgow architects with a reputation for sensitive interventions, Park and Page was well received. There is still much discussion and money needed (not withstanding Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie’s support) but by 2018/19 “the Mack” should reopen, reverting to the original idea of an interdisciplinary art and design school, with all first year students getting to work there and experience the space’s legacies old and new.
Review by Cassy Sachar
Assistant Academic Support Librarian
Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London