In an ideal world, donors would submit collections to Special Collections and Archives (SCA) in as pristine a manner possible: boxes would be clearly labeled and the contents organized and titled appropriately; contents would be in excellent stable condition; and the threat of pests (insects etc.) would be minimal to none. The idea that a box of material–whether textual or photographic–could be a danger to a person’s health seems a little out there.
Unfortunately this is a reality that many archivists and librarians face on the job; Post graduation, recently-minted professionals would never have imagined the sorts of environments they would be exposed to while collecting valuable historical documents. Mold/mildew, mice/rats, snakes, spiders, book lice, chemicals, and other biohazards are often parts of the job that are less than glamorous and certainly seldom publicized.
Recently, Special Collections and Archives was asked to retrieve materials stored in a older-model bleekers box that was offsite storage for the organization making the donation. The name and location of the material (and its donor) shall remain anonymous. Upon opening the door to the bleekers box, the immediate heavy musty odor suggested the very real likely presence of active mold and/or wood rot.
The source of this odor was not immediately clear, but it wouldn’t take long to discover that a nickel-sized hole in the metal roof of the storage container had allowed water to enter for a number of years. Subsequently, numerous boxes and wooden shelves directly underneath had active (fuzzy) mold on them, preventing the retrieval team from even looking at the contents and assessing them for potential acquisition. Active mold contains tiny spores that are easily breathed in when disturbed; often these spores can attach themselves to tissues in the body and continue growing there, leading to serious medical issues. For this reason, archivists know that specialized retrieval by a trained team of experts in full protective gear is the only way active mold should be safely removed and managed. Inactive mold (dark and powdery) has fewer health concerns, but wearing gloves and using a mask to protect airways is always a good idea.
However, all is not lost! There are many safety precautions that can be taken to mitigate exposure and potential illness when working with at-risk materials. Prior to commencing work, SCA staff put on protective nitrile gloves; these were swapped out regularly throughout the day. One member of the staff regularly wore a protective mask as she was making regular trips in and out of the box, while two other staff were predominantly stationed in the outdoors where there was less risk of exposure. Out of approximately 125 boxes stored in the bleekers box, the contents of 91 were identified as being in stable condition. After re-housing them in new boxes (and retaining all contextual information written on the boxes), the old boxes were collapsed and discarded or recycled. A further 17 boxes were experiencing accelerated mold growth and were not touched. Other boxes contained information that was of no interest to SCA. It is anticipated that a future visit to the bleeker’s box by a special team of pest professionals will be undertaken to retrieve the remaining 17 moldy boxes safely.
AND the story is not over. To eliminate other pests (such as silverfish, spiders, beetles, and book lice) that were not immediately seen in the material, these 91 boxes will be plastic wrapped on-site and sent to a large walk-in freezer for one-week of freezing. This step is critical so that SCA does not unwillingly introduce pests to collections presently housed in its storage facility. Altogether it is anticipated that this process will take over one month before all 91 boxes (and potentially some of the other 17 boxes) are all housed in SCA and ready for a formal review for appraisal, arrangement & description, and digitization purposes.
In closing, SCA will leave you and our future donors with some recommendations for storing your material so that the scenario above can be avoided.
- Ensure the storage environment is sealed from exposure to the elements (check for leaks, cracks, and points of entry for insects/rodents)
- Wherever possible, provide a consistent year-round temperature and relative humidity. While this is an ideal, new research suggests that materials are hardier than previously thought and can withstand some degree of seasonal fluctuation (winter to summer and vice-versa; monsoon activity) that can affect either temperature or relative humidity
- Mitigate the level of light beaming down directly on materials or the boxes in which they are contained. Light damage will rapidly deteriorate these materials. Most materials prefer environments as dark as possible.
- Use acid-free (and preferably waterproof/resistant) boxes and file folders/supplies to store documents/materials
- Organize and inventory boxes in a manner conducive to eventual transfer in the event you move or you wish to donate materials to an archival repository.