Fire brigades sprayed water on the INION library for 2 days.

Vladimir Pokrovsky

Fire devastates Russian Academy library

A huge fire this weekend in the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences (INION) in Moscow has destroyed a substantial part of the library holdings of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). The fire broke out on Friday night and lasted more than 25 hours. Because it was the weekend, it took some time for the staff to notice the flames, so the fire was able to get a firm hold.

The INION library holds an important collection of documents and books on social sciences, and researchers are describing the damage as catastrophic. Fortunately, fire brigades managed to confine the fire and save the main depository that contains 14 million documents, including some in ancient languages and rare editions dating back to as early as the 16th century. The library also holds the only collection of U.N. and UNESCO documents in Russia.

Russia’s ministry for emergency situations has said the blaze was most probably started by an electrical short circuit. But INION Director Yuri Pivovarov thinks it could have been caused by a firework thrown inside by teenagers who often play in front of the building. “The ministry for emergency situations has approved the fire safety status of INION,” Pivovarov says, so it is unclear how the fire could have done so much damage.

“About 20% of the unique scientific works that were kept in hard copies have been lost forever,” says RAS President Vladimir Fortov. Privately, library staff told ScienceInsider that they believe the damage is much more serious. Documents that escaped burning have probably been damaged by water. Firefighters stated that they did all they could to protect the documents from water.

“It is a huge loss for science in Russia. It is one of the biggest depositories of its kind in the world, probably as important for Russian science as the Library of Congress is for Americans. It has documents which it is impossible to find anywhere else,” Pivovarov says. Nevertheless, Fortov believes that most of the library stock can be saved. Pivovarov cautions that recovery will take several years, however.

The fire may also affect some European humanities research. The library building hosted the German Historical Institute Moscow. “The destruction of the institute brings serious loss to German-Russian scientific relationship and links,” Gleb Albert, a German historian from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, told the Russian online newspaper Gazeta.ru

The future of the surviving library stock remains uncertain. Fortov has proposed the construction of a new building for the library. “Since the library is federal property, together with the academy authorities I am going to ask the Russian president for help,” Pivovarov says.

*Update, 3 February, 11:05 a.m.: This article has been updated to clarify RAS President Vladimir Fortov’s assessment of the damage.