How do you plan for a wildfire?

We learned a bit about disaster planning for archives–milk crates full of plastic sheeting, fishing line, chocolate, and many other materials are stashed in many a back corner–but there are some disasters you cannot plan for. The archives of Hewlett and Packard (the people, not the current company) were destroyed by the Sonoma County wildfires last month.

Historic marker outside of the garage in which Hewlett and Packard first began their company. Photo by samkinsley via CC BY-NC 2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/samkinsley/2707592596

Actually, though the archival loss seems like an act of God, some observers argue that appropriate measures would have saved the records. The papers of these inventors have moved around quite a bit (more on that in a moment) and previous locations had featured foam fire suppressant. In contrast, the last home of these incinerated collections was a “modular building,” described (in the article above) in contrast to a “permanent structure” nearby. In the article I link to above, archivists who previously had stewardship over the documents vent their frustration, and I cannot blame them.

Why did the personal papers of two influential innovators (collections appraised at $1.9 million) housed in a temporary structure? It isn’t clear. They moved around in part because they were passed from one offshoot company of HP to another. It seems they were housed at Keysight Technologies at the time of the fire because the work of Keysight–“the world’s largest electronics measurement company”–was closest to the original projects that brought Hewlett and Packard together. The papers were, technologically speaking, most relevant to Keysight, and so the company’s possession of the papers makes sense.

These were not the only papers of the two entrepreneurs and other documentation of their humble beginnings in a garage survive in other archival holdings. Perhaps this sad event will be a cautionary tale for other corporations and precipitate better care of papers like these, in archives with emergency plans and fire suppression systems.

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