I’ve let this blog thing slide a bit, because last week was mental deadline crazy week, plus I was giving a lunchtime talk in the department. (We call these ‘graduate seminars’, but in reality most of the people who come to them are from the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, the university itself, or people who have retired from one or the other, so calling it ‘graduate seminar’ is a bit misleading.) Anyway, it all went well, I came away with things to think about, and got back to writing the Thesis of Doom.
I managed to miss the date for a post I’d been going to do for Shakespeare’s birthday, and thought I might post that today, slightly late but still relevant, when I got home. I was up on campus, crashing a panel two lads from my department were presenting in at the English department’s postgrad conference on liminality.
Only things did not go according to plan.
I arrived a little ahead of schedule, and the speakers weren’t there yet. When they did, looking frazzled, my friend told me, ‘Mae’r llyfrgell ar dân.’
I don’t code-switch very well, and I’d just been speaking English, so thought I’d misheard. ‘Beth?’ I asked.
He repeated himself. ‘Mae’r llyfrgell ar dân.’
‘Wait,’ I said, because I really had to be hearing this wrong, ‘the library what?’
‘On fire,’ he said.
Apparently I hadn’t misheard after all. We all went to the window, where you could see smoke billowing into the sky from a little way down the hill. You know, the back of the roof of the National Library of Wales.
This is the home to some of the most amazing manuscripts in the world–not just medieval Welsh manuscripts, but especially those, because there are so very few of them left.
Things like this:
That’s the Black Book of Carmarthen, the oldest collection of medieval Welsh literature in the world. It’s not ancient as manuscripts go–it’s from about 1250–but it was clearly a labour of love for some scribe who started collecting all his favourite stories together in one place. It is amazing. It lives in the National Library of Wales.
And things like this:
If you have the sort of screen where you can make out the words–they’re in English–Whan that Aprille w(it)h his shoures soote–you will realise that is the Hengwrt Chaucer, a manuscript of the Canterbury Tales that may have been partly supervised by the author himself. It lives in the National Library of Wales.
Those are only two of the amazing things that live there. The National Library is home to other medieval manuscripts, some of which have no other extant versions, to early modern manuscript and printed texts, to the newspaper archive of Wales, the geneaological records for all the thousands of people who come to track down their family histories, to the scribbled notes of Dylan Thomas, to the National Sound and Screen Archive. As a legal deposit library, it is entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. (Also, my MA thesis. Anyway, you get the point.)
Despite all those treasures, panic did not immediately set in. The fire was on the roof, in the back of the building; the manuscripts are kept in vaults in the basement. Also, there is an effective but terrifying fire extuingishing method in place–should fire reach those vaults, a mechanism sucks out all the oxygen. This will kill the fire; it will also suffocate anyone down there trying to save them.
With this in mind, we were very relieved to hear everyone was safely evacuated.
Anyway, there being nothing we could really do, we went back to presenting papers. (One of the speakers, who is getting over a bad cold and had a sore throat, asked where the water was. The organiser, deadpan, said ‘the National Library.’ Little did she know that it was true: at that moment, the water pressure at the university was being donated to the firefighters, so that a lot of the toilets weren’t working.) We texted a friend who works in the building, who assured us everybody was out and safe, though the roof was still on fire.
As the panel ended, another speaker, who’d been talking with outside people, came rushing in.
‘I don’t know if you’ve all heard,’ she said, ‘but there’s a fire at the National Library.’ Why yes, we had heard. This is a small town, and also, you could see the smoke from the window.
Then she said, ‘They’re asking for people to volunteer to come and help move some of the books.’
To a room full of literature students.
Immediately, we leapt into action! (Seriously, I didn’t even know some of these people could move that fast.) WE WOULD BE THE HEROIC RESCUERS OF BOOKS! WE WOULD SAVE THE BEAUTIFUL BOOKS FROM THEIR FIERY FATE! (Assuming of course they didn’t expect us to go in the vaults with no oxygen.)
How we felt: Grad students to the rescue!
In the end, this didn’t happen–for a good and sensible reason. When the horde of well-meaning students arrived in the library car park, the firefighters pointed out that they were actually still at work doing their job of, you know, putting out the fire. It was not safe to have people going back in, even to save books. They suggested we let them finish with the pesky ‘flames on the roof’ thing first, and come back in an hour or two to be useful.
(There will probably be people reading this who do not live in small Welsh towns, and are confused by the idea of random civilians…er, assisting…firefighters, but just go with it. It’s how we roll.)
It didn’t actually look like this anymore; it was just smoking and smouldering, but that is definitely real fire.
We dispersed. It had been a surprisingly lovely spring day, which, you know, is typical, because this is Wales and normally you can expect it to be raining. Naturally, the day the cultural centre of the country catches fire is the day we get some decent weather. But just about the time I was at the furthest point from my house, without a coat, someone got around to catching God up on the situation. (‘What? There’s a fire where? Right, I’ll get right on it! RAIN, INCOMING!’)
In a matter of about two minutes, it started pissing it down. (I’m not sure if proper academic blogs are supposed to say ‘pissing it down’, but it was.)
That was probably useful for the firefighting, but I was wet and freezing and started racing for home, on the way to which I stopped off to hide from the rain in a pub. There, I learned that there had been work being done on the roof at the time, and that it may have involved flammable things and a blowtorch. (My Welsh vocabulary, as it turns out, does not include all the words necessary for discussing roof repairs. To be honest, I’m not sure my English is up to it either. Anyway, don’t quote me on anything here.)
We hung around for a while on alert, ready to rush back up the hill to serve the cause of saving the books, but here’s the reality of it: by the time the fire was out around 6:30pm, a lot of the roof was missing and can’t be considered stable. The firefighters had been pumping water in for nearly four hours. There is no way that place was safe to let people start tromping in touching things. The professionals started their investigation into what started the fire, and how much damage there is.
But if they need us, we’re still totally ready.
Where things are now:
The library will be closed tomorrow (and possibly until further notice) and have asked both staff and readers not to come up to the building unless contacted. If they need us for anything, they’ll let us know.
Fire crews, however, will be on site through the night.
Ceredigion’s AM, Elin Jones, tweeted tonight that apparently it’s worse than they thought.
To get updates, follow @NLWales (English) or @LLGCymru (Welsh), or @MAWWFire (the Mid & West Wales fire service). Also, ITV is still updating their coverage page when things come in. Their reporter was on the scene for quite a while–longer than me, definitely, but he had an umbrella.