- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

The Library of Congress, the world's largest and arguably one of the loveliest of libraries, harbors a remarkable collection of fire hazards that seriously threaten its people and its treasures.
That's the conclusion of fire safety specialists who spent a year on a comprehensive inspection of the three-building Capitol Hill complex and its 18 million books, 500 miles of bookshelves and 101 million other treasures.
In a 20-page summary recently released, the inspectors' report said, among other things, that the Library of Congress buildings have "inadequate or ineffective fire barriers to retard the spread of fire and smoke, inadequate exit signs, deficient smoke detection and emergency lighting, inadequate sprinkler coverage and dangerous storage of flammable and toxic materials."
What's more, the fire safety specialists declare, "There is a regrettable consistency in the lack of proper testing and maintenance of major electrical systems and of fire-safety systems, such as fire alarms, smoke detectors, sprinklers, suppression systems, and emergency generators."
The report states that although most hazards have existed for years, they are "in a category warranting immediate attention."
Indeed, library executives promptly corrected some of the hazards and began dealing with others that couldn't be quickly remedied. Still, the report states, "The sheer number of problems (the inspection lists for each building exceed 70 pages in length) means that it may require months to complete all the work."
Safety officer Bob Browne said in an interview that it will take "a year or two to work out 80 percent of the changes, and it could be a four-year process to accomplish the intricate architectural and structural changes needed in the Great Hall and Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building."
The 103-year-old Jefferson Building is the famous domed, Italian Renaissance structure facing the east side of the Capitol. It contains stunning statuary, murals and one of the three existing perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first important book printed in the Western world. It is a main destination of scholars and tourists.
Fire-safety problems that could imperil that building and the others have multiplied over the years because, like all congressional buildings, the Library of Congress facilities were exempt from fire codes. They were never inspected by state or local fire inspectors.
Still, said Mr. Browne, "the library definitely isn't a fire trap. If it was, it would be shut down. But the report is accurate."
Mr. Browne noted that the inspectors raised "a number of complex issues." Yet he said, "the fixes are doable. We can bring the buildings up to code without marring the beauty, the architectural history and the ambiance especially of the Jefferson Building."
Clearly, library officials are taking the fire specialists' findings seriously. And history dictates that they should, for fire has played havoc with the institution.
The first blaze occurred in 1814. Invading British troops burned the Capitol, where the Library of Congress was originally located. Flames wiped out the core of the library collection.
Then on Christmas Eve, 1851, a spark from a stove ignited a fire that destroyed 35,000 of the library's 55,000 volumes.
And in April 1999, an electrical fire raged in the Madison Building, seriously injuring one person. The Madison Building, an annex that lies to the south of the Jefferson building, had to be evacuated.
The Madison fire occurred shortly after worried Capitol Hill workers requested that officials inspect all Capitol Hill buildings. The workers were reacting to a series of fires in congressional buildings the year before that dramatized deficiencies in the Hill's ability to prevent and cope with blazes.
The Library of Congress complex was among the last to be scrutinized as a result of the workers' request.
The inspectors, who subsequently combed the Hill's structures for hazards, work under the authority of the Congressional Office of Compliance. It is the office that is charged with enforcing 1995 legislation requiring congressional facilities to meet the same occupational and safety rules imposed on the general public.
The compliance team that searched the Library of Congress obviously found various specific structural and mechanical flaws, including a lack of fire barriers. But they noted significant operational failings, too.
For one thing, they observed that the Library of Congress police, who are charged with sounding fire alarms, didn't know how to activate them.

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