Navy Department Library Looks to Future-Proof Unique Historical Documents

Story Number: NNS131126-17Release Date: 11/26/2013 12:19:00 PM
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By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division

WASHINGTON (NNS) -- The staff of the Naval History and Heritage Command's (NHHC) Navy Department Library continued the renovation of its rare book room, Nov. 26, in order to better conserve the rare and unique documents preserved and stored in the room at the Washington Navy Yard.

As part of an ongoing overhaul of various NHHC headquarters, the room is receiving a new fire suppression system, the FM-200 made by DuPont.

The FM-200 uses a gas that will extinguish fire without damaging irreplaceable items, replacing a primary system of fire sprinklers that would have released damaging water onto priceless documents and artifacts. The overhaul highlights NHHC's persistent commitment to professionalize the U.S. Navy's museums and curatorial rooms, bringing them level with the best of America's museums.

"Water on these documents would practically be as bad as fire," said Glenn Helm, Director of the Navy Department Library. "They would be ruined. It would stop the fire, but you would lose everything. The objective is to have a gas fire suppression system as the primary system. It will permeate everything but it won't damage the books."

"Instead of water it discharges Heptaflouropropane - a colorless, odorless gaseous halocarbon that is non-toxic," explained Igor Boras, senior construction manager for Public Works Department Naval Support Activity Washington, about the new system.

According to the manufacturer, the gas provides for rapid fire extinguishing by a series of chemical and physical mechanisms and yet is so safe the gas is used by pharmaceutical companies as a propellant in asthma inhalers. While the gas is the primary system to put out fires, the room still retains a water system as a secondary measure.

According to a fire protection engineer for Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC), there is a good reason to keep the water system as well. According to the engineer, although water is very damaging to documents, actual fire incident history has shown that the damage from an unchecked fire is much greater than the damage from a fire that is controlled by sprinklers - even accounting for water damage. NAVFAC provided the gaseous suppression system to reduce the likelihood of water discharge, but also maintains the sprinkler system to provide a fail-safe in the event the gaseous system is overwhelmed or impaired.

An added bonus is that the system is smaller than comparable systems so it will not take up as much space in the rare book room, where space is at a premium.

"The cylinders used to dispense the gas are smaller," Boras said. "So the system itself is smaller."

NHHC's Navy Department Library rare book room, a climate-controlled vault, features documents both unique and rare. The room even boasts a whole shelf of books written before 1600. During the renovation process, the rare books have been put into a partitioned part of the room to keep these incredibly rare volumes and documents safe.

"It houses our oldest and most valuable material, both books and manuscripts," James Allen Knechtmann, the library's head of reference, explained about the room. "This is the holy of holies of Navy history. We have Nimitz's commissioning certificates, a certificate naming him an honorary Knight Commander of the Bath with King George VI's signature on it, a menu from USS Kearsarge signed by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1903, a log from a Royal Navy warship captured during the American Revolution; there is a lot of rare material, much of it absolutely irreplaceable."

"It's literally a treasure house of the Navy. John Paul Jones' calling card collection from when he was with the Russian navy, documents captured on U-505 when Daniel Gallery boarded the sub - it's this fabulous selection of incredibly rare items. One can spend a day describing treasures in here," Helm added.

The books in the rare book room have proven invaluable to writers and researchers, including some who went on to fame for the works they wrote based on the rare book room's collection.

"One of the researchers that used the room was Rick Atkinson," Helm said. "He wrote a trilogy, one of the volumes of which is called 'An Army at Dawn,' about the invasion of North Africa in 1942. He received a Pulitzer Prize for that book. My name is in the acknowledgements to it, because I helped him when he was here. [Knechtmann] and most of the staff can say similar things."

The work on the room is expected to be finished sometime in January.

"We hope by the end of January we are in the position to be putting the books back, as well as [wall] hangings and decorations and having a perfect new room," Helm remarked.

The system, the first of its kind to be installed anywhere at NHHC, is a way of making sure in the future that Navy Department Library rare documents and artifacts have a better chance of surviving a catastrophe such as a fire and bringing the room's safeguards in line with other major institutions. It's a job that Helm and Knechtmann both take very seriously.

"It's a job, but it is also an honor and privilege to work with this material, to try to protect it and shepherd it into the future," Helm said. "As a professional it doesn't get any better."

For more information on the Navy Department Library and the rare book room, visit Naval History and heritage Command's website at

For more news from Naval History and Heritage Command, visit

Four pages of a message drafted in May 1814 sent from Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry to Secretary of the Navy William Jones detailing cargo and items seized from British ships during the Battle of Lake Erie, Sept. 10, 1813,
Official U.S. Navy file photo of Four pages of a message drafted in May 1814 sent from Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry to Secretary of the Navy William Jones detailing cargo and items seized from British ships during the Battle of Lake Erie, Sept. 10, 1813, lay on an archival table inside the Navy Department Library's rare book room. The Navy Department Library is undergoing an overhaul to its fire suppression system to better conserve rare documents it holds such as these.
September 9, 2013
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