Friday, July 23, 2010

23 July 2003: Fire at the Main Library

On this day in 2003, a fire was started at 5:45pm on the second floor of the Ilah Dunlap Little Memorial Library, better known as the Main Library, on the University of Georgia campus. While no one was injured, approximately 200 employees and visitors had to be evacuated, and there was extensive smoke damage throughout the building.

Within 20 minutes of the firefighter's arrival, they had the fire contained. A total of 40 firemen were called to the scene: 30 from four Athens-Clarke County stations and 10 from Oconee County and Winterville. Many of the windows on the second floor of the library were not designed to open, so firemen smashed them open to help disperse the smoke.

Smoke caused the most extensive damage to the library, with the duct system within the building delivering smoke to all levels, including the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library on the third floor. Though damages were originally estimated to be only $1.5 million, recovery efforts (such as replacing 70,000 new ceiling tiles, hundreds of light fixtures, rebinding nearly 13,000 volumes, and treating thousands of volumes and areas of the building for smoke damage) took more than a year and cost over $12 million.

Within a week, investigators ruled arson as the cause of the fire. In April, 2005, a homeless man seen at the library the day of the fire, went on trial for two charges of first-degree arson. His attorney claimed his confession had been coerced and that investigators had not proven who or even how the fire started. A jury of eight women and four men deliberated for eight hours over two days before finding the man not guilty. He was, however, banned from all campus properties for two years.

The 2003 fire was not the first to be experienced by University of Georgia libraries. Their original collection of books was destroyed by a fire in 1830, and was replaced with new volumes the following year. In 1902, when George Foster Peabody was given a tour of campus, he was alarmed to find the school's library in a wooden building, and told Chancellor Walter Barnard Hill to build a modern, brick building and send him the bill. In 1905, a new $50,000 library opened, and included new volumes also donated by George Foster Peabody. It is currently the Administration building after several decades as the Georgia Museum of Art.

By 1945, the library had 205,000 volumes and needed new space. In 1952, the library moved into its current home, the Ilah Dunlap Little Memorial library. It is known on campus as "the main library" to distinguish it from the separate science library on south campus, the law library next door, the Miller Learning Center next to the Tate Center, and the new Special Collections library currently under construction on Hull and Waddell Streets.

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