When History Gets Dirty, You Mask Up! A Glance at Inventory in Three Perspectives: Part 2, Repeat Offenders (A Look at Mold, Decay, Rats, and Bugs)

“If you see live bugs, get out and tell us. If you see mold, come get us right away. Good luck.”

If you heard those words out loud, I’m not sure what you’d expect, but I’ve learned to expect an adventure in the acquisitions room. On our first day, this was the short warning we received before we began sifting through uncharted items. With every uncharted course, however, there are also a few adventures and dangers. After hearing a rundown of bug damage, how to tell if mold is active or not — if it’s standing up, you’ve got a problem — we were left to our task. Everything else was on the go, hands-on learning.

With all the potential problems in store, walking into the acquisitions room kind of felt like walking into a minefield. I don’t think any of us had any idea what was in store for us. I know that I didn’t think that it could possibly be that bad. While the threats of bugs and other natural calamities hung over our heads, they seemed like possibilities that wouldn’t come true — not in our collection! I can’t even begin to say how wrong I was.

Life in the archive sometimes feels a little like being in an alternate reality where the ultimate law is Murphy’s law — everything that can go wrong will. And while working with acquisitions, this seemed doubly so. Just a few days in, we encountered our first problem — a box labeled with a sticky note: “Inactive mold. Caution. Do not open.” This was the first time I had encountered any of the problems we were warned about, and I probably should have heeded that like an omen. Just a few days later, the floodgates were open, on the most fitting day of the week, a Monday.

To start off our morning, we first encountered audiovisual decay of two types — vinegar syndrome and sticky shed. These occur when audiovisual materials begin to break down whether through their natural life span or through outside elements like increased humidity. This whole adventure started off when Miranda pulled a box off one of the shelves that reeked of vinegar, which we identified as vinegar syndrome.


Its actual scientific name? Acetate film base degradation. But after opening a box to the sharp, pungent smell almost like a rag soaked in a vinegar bath (at least this is how I described it to my mother to get my point across), you quickly learn to call it by its more common name — vinegar syndrome. This happens as film material degrades, shriveling up and falling apart, and quickly becoming irretrievable. These symptoms are generally accelerated by storage in warm and humid conditions. Once it starts, the film is gone quickly. Media prone to vinegar syndrome should be stored in cold and dry storage, and if you suspect vinegar syndrome might be onset, diagnose it quickly to save the material. Unfortunately, this particular tape was unsalvageable.

We also ran into even worse vinegar syndrome later. A large book with crinkled pages that we had originally inventoried and moved past came back to bite us, as I nudged the pages slightly to put a box by it and immediately smelled the noxious scent of vinegar. The vinegar syndrome on this item was so bad that the material that was included in the item was no longer viewable. It had all but decayed to dust. So, be sure to check old film reels for some smells that belong in cleaning supplies and not in the archive.

As Miranda and I were learning about vinegar syndrome, Aurora found some problems of her own with a roll of photo negatives that had what we call sticky shed. To be a bit more accurate, Aurora had a box filled with rolls upon rolls of unpreserved photo negatives that had begun to degrade despite their protective casing. Sticky shed is caused by the breakdown of the magnetic tape binder and backing layer of the tape, as the backing absorbs moisture from the environment. This causes a brown residue to shed off the media, and cause them to become sticky. For these photo negatives, there’s not much we can do except digitize them as soon as possible and recover as much as we can.

That very same morning, not twenty minutes later, I picked up a book – a copy of the 1919 Senior Brown Book – and almost dropped it immediately. The entire back cover had been eaten through – a hard cover with a gaping hole with distinctive chew marks around the side.

Off we went to get help again. As we appraised the book, opening it carefully with gloves, we eventually realized that the damage had been caused by something a lot larger…and meaner…than a cockroach. This was the work of a rat. Thankfully, not a rat in the acquisitions room (the damage was probably inflicted before it was donated to Special Collections), but a rat nonetheless. 

Rats, and not the nice anthropomorphized ones like Remy from Ratatouille, are one of the most common rodents encountered by archivists and librarians. While this particular rat damage did not happen in house, rats are difficult to control in any environment because of their ability to gnaw through most “impermeable” objects, including cinder blocks, aluminum sheeting, wood, plastic, and sheetrock. It’s no wonder that this particular rat decided that the back of a hardcover yearbook would be a good teething toy. The damage inflicted on this particular book was recognizable by the chew marks and crumbling edges, as well as massive discoloration.

This is distinct from bug damage from silverfish, roaches, and beetles, which are some other types of common pests in an archive because they dine on protein and starch components of books and other materials. You can usually tell silverfish damage by telling ragged edges on loose paper, and the surface of the book cloth. Plus, they’ll leave behind “frass” or fecal matter that unfortunately marks their territory. Beetles and cockroaches aren’t much better. In fact, they’re almost worse because cockroaches will also eat book cloth, and have far less “delicate” damage than silverfish. Of course, rats are the least delicate of them all.

All of this on a Monday morning, and it was still far from over. Opening a green and white box, expecting to find just more scrapbooks, I found what happened to set off a circus. Mold. Active mold. I pulled out scrapbooks and picture frames that to my horror had little flecks of visibly standing white mold. When you term it like that, it almost feels like the mold is reaching for you, standing up to make its way out of the box and take over the rest of the room. Of course, we immediately sought advice on how to deal with this. After donning masks and gloves, and alerting Holly and Nancy who recruited our Facilities Manager, Evan, we were able to assess the damage. Definitely mold, definitely active, definitely dangerous for the materials — and for our lungs. We used packing tape to tape the box shut; I insisted on using yards and yards of tape to make sure nothing could “escape.” We then put the offending box in a trash bag, tying it up and taping it shut. Putting the tape in a large X across the top was a relief. Hopefully, this would be the short end of our problems.

X marks the spot

Unfortunately for us, that hope was unfounded. Acquisitions always had more in store for us. The next day – Tuesday morning – started fairly uneventfully, except for the dead cockroach we found which I kindly asked the braver of the two of us (definitely Miranda, not I!) to dispose of. However, as our Archival Assistant, Jim, came to inquire about our progress, he happened to turn around a picture frame and the sight nearly caused me to drop the coffee mug I was holding. The entire back of the frame was covered in green. 


I remember the moment clearly, with me panicking over mold and practically ordering an evacuation and the slight shock at finding the moldiest thing I have ever seen. Quarantining and packing away this item was one of the funnier moments of inventory as well; Miranda, Holly, and I teamed up to cut four trash bags down the seam, and covered the frame like a fitted sheet. Again, I went a little packing tape crazy, wrapping yards and yards of tape down every seam possible, but I think I’m allowed.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at the dangers of mold in collections and the risks they bring to both humans and collections. Mold is a blanket term for almost 100,000 species of fungi that can vary in color and pattern. Hence the reason why the mold we found was both green and white. Mold spores germinate in the right environment: humidity, temperature, stagnant air, and a food source. This is why acquisition rooms are kept so cold and dry – it keeps mold from spreading and germinating. Unfortunately, most treasures we get come from places of the exact antithesis: attics and basements. Warm, stagnant places where water can get on an item, up the humidity, and soon there’s a widespread mold problem.

Avoiding mold in an archive is of utmost importance as it can digest almost all organic material including paper and book cloth. Mold is also an even worse danger to humans, who can be exposed through inhalation and small breaks in the skin. Exposure can cause respiratory problems, skin and eye irritations, and allergic reactions to people with mold or fungi allergies, and even those who don’t. To avoid these consequences, we always wore masks and gloves while handling moldy materials. Archivists quarantine these materials as soon as possible by bagging them and placing them far away from people and other parts of the collection alike. While materials with mold problems can sometimes be salvaged, it requires a process of killing the mold spores through freezing and removing them outdoors. Usually, however, if the affect material is not incredibly significant, it is usually in the best interest of the collection to obtain a replacement as materials with mold damage will never regain their appearance and will have higher risk of future mold blooms. If the item cannot be replaced, we’ll keep the item isolated from our other holdings in an area inhospitable to mold growth. 

Usually related to mold is its twin brother of water damage. If water were to affect our collections, the first step is to immediately begin to air dry collection materials. We would also take steps towards containing and avoiding mold, and if mold were to grow, steps towards removing it safely. This is one of the larger concerns for the archive due to its proximity in the building to pipes and a bathroom, but we only found one instance of water damage in the acquisitions room — and it also happened prior to donation.

There’s a quick overview of all the problems you may run into while preserving your own memories. Have any preservation questions? Leave us a question here, or on Facebook or Twitter, and we’ll get back to you.

If you missed it, take a look at Miranda’s look at the process and categorization of inventory from Part 1 on Monday, and look forward to Aurora’s personal look at inventory in Part 3 on Friday!

Works Cited

“Approaches to Insect Problems in Paper and Books.” Harry Ransom Center University of Texas at Austin. http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/conservation/resources/insects/ (accessed November 18, 2016).

“Archival Formats: Glossary of Terms.” National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/preservation/formats/glossary.html (accessed November 18, 2016).

Cornell University Library. “Pest Control.” Library Preservation and Conservation. https://www.library.cornell.edu/preservation/librarypreservation/mee/management/pestcontrol.html (accessed November 18, 2016).

“Preservation Basics: Vinegar Syndrome.” National Film Preservation Foundation. http://www.filmpreservation.org/preservation-basics/vinegar-syndrome (accessed November 18, 2016).

“Preservation Services: Mold.” Harvard Library. http://library.harvard.edu/preservation/mold (accessed November 18, 2016).

Sin, Lauren. “A Sticky Situation: Baking the Tapes.” National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-extra/2012/05/30/153917107/a-sticky-situation-baking-the-tapes (accessed November 18, 2016).

“3.8 Emergency Salvage of Moldy Books and Paper.” Northeast Document Preservation Center. https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/3.-emergency-management/3.8-emergency-salvage-of-moldy-books-and-paper (accessed November 18, 2016).

One thought on “When History Gets Dirty, You Mask Up! A Glance at Inventory in Three Perspectives: Part 2, Repeat Offenders (A Look at Mold, Decay, Rats, and Bugs)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s