Preserving the Perishable: A Fire Historian’s Never Ending Battle

As a member of the fire service community, so many of us tend to naturally become collectors. Whether it be books, toys, models, hose appliances, or even up to and including antique apparatus, the fire service offers a little something for everyone. If you aren’t a collector of something, I would venture a guess you just haven’t been around the fire service long enough, but give it time. As we begin to collect artifacts of the fire service, we are being entrusted with fragments of history that, when knitted together, tell the story of our proud and wonderful history and traditions. However, with collecting comes responsibility. By accepting or purchasing that item, you have taken possession of a piece of fire service history. By agreeing to take possession, you have accepted the responsibility to preserve that piece of history for future generations. For many, the question might very well be a simple. How do I do that? I was given the chief’s personal library but I don’t know how to maintain books. I was blessed to find a handwritten account or an actual newspaper article of a significant fire in my department’s history, but I don’t know how to maintain paper. I was lucky to find a unique toy fire truck at a random flea market, but now what do I do? These are all valid questions and aren’t anything new to a collector. The other aspect of preservation is historical department records. In the digital age, many records are now available electronically, but what is your department doing to maintain your printed records and documents. Often you may see the original charter displayed in a frame on the wall. Is this the best preservation method for this document? I have heard horror stories of “clean up” days disposing of valuable historical photos and documents from the department’s history because it was unclear of what they actually were. How can you and your department work to preserve your own local history by protecting your documents for the next generation? It is my hope that in a series of blog articles, I can help you answer some of these very questions, empowering you to do your part in ‘preserving the perishable’. The reality is that everything is in a state of decay. Whether it be paper, wood, or even metal, the elements are at work breaking it down. It’s our job as preservationists to delay that decay as best as we possibly can. In order to achieve that, we can utilize very simple, industry-approved techniques that will extend the life of your collection for future generations. As we continue to work with this article series, I will be touching on paper, books, posters and prints, photographs and slides, and then hit on three-dimensional objects such as badges, uniform apparel, and antique toys. Obviously, if you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me and I will be happy to answer your questions. If you feel you are to a point where you would like to turn the preservation of your items over to the National Fire Heritage Center, please contact us. We can arrange for the transfer of ownership, and as a 501c3 organization, your donation is tax-deductible. “Preserving the perishable” is everyone’s responsibility. Join the National Fire Heritage Center as we embark on this preservation journey together.
Dick DeVore, Chief Archivist

The National Fire Heritage Center
17701 Creamery Road, Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
P.O. Drawer 76, Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
(301) 876-3454