Dirty Books: A Hypochondriac’s Guide to Archival Donations

“Oh, this smells. What if there’s mold? Am I going to get the black lung? And eew! Is that mouse poop?!”

I’ll admit to being a bit of a hypochondriac. I can go from seeing a new bug bite to visualizing my imminent death in about 5 seconds flat. So, you can imagine that the prospect of going through new donation full of um… surprises, can be anxiety inducing. My nerves aren’t completely unwarranted. There could be insects, or active mold in there! But I firmly believe in the good that making archival materials accessible to researchers does so, I’ve armed myself with knowledge, good sense, and caution. I’ve overcome my fears and encountered history in its rawest, smelliest form.  And I’m here to offer what wisdom I can in this Hypochondriac’s Guide to Archival Donations. Now, let’s talk dirty.

Oh, I am NOT touching that!

Yes, you can! While you can’t control the contents of any box you work with, you can control the environment and the precautions that you take.

Where the magic happens:  If possible, set aside a place to deal with new accessions. This will keep any mess contained. At the University of Iowa, there’s a room in the basement for inspecting new materials.  If this isn’t possible for you, be sure to clean the space you use beforehand (for the materials’ sake) and afterwards


A few tools of the trade: mask, brushes, vulcanized rubber and gloves.

(for your own peace of mind).

Use protection: I have four words for you: Gloves. Gloves, gloves, gloves. OK, that’s one word. But it’s important. Covering your hands puts a physical barrier between whatever is in that box and you. Dirt? Someone’s hair? Animal excrement? Whatever! You’re not actually touching it. Further, by wearing gloves, you are protecting fragile materials from the oils on your hands.  Touched something gross? Use this routine to remove gloves safely. Besides wearing gloves, you may want a face mask, and an apron.

What’s that smell?

Smoke:  The odor of cigarettes sticks to everything. The papers destined for archives are no exception. What you smell has a name: third hand smoke.” Is it dangerous?  Maybe, but not very dangerous. Your main concern will be neutralizing the smell. Putting the materials in a new box will help. If you’re concerned about exposure, use a mask and gloves.

Vinegar:  It could be vinegar (I’m not excluding any possibilities, here) but it’s probably decomposing film. Cellulose acetate film gives off a vinegar-like odor as it decays. It isn’t dangerous to you, but the film is in an inexorable process of deterioration. Hold your nose, enclose, and store in a cool, dark, dry environment.

Damp: Does it smell like a basement? The damp smell is not good. The materials will have to be inspected for mold as you re-box. It’s likely that the materials are fine, but use caution by not touching the materials with your bare skin and, if you are sensitive to mold, using a mask.

Is that mold?

No. I don’t recommend recklessness, if you have allergies or asthma, use caution and wear a mask. But do keep in mind that when you’re worried about inhaling spores, lots of stuff looks like mold that isn’t. For instance: red rot. Red rot disease does exist, but it only applies to sugar cane. Old leather can also develop something called red rot, and it is way worse for the book than it is for you. Unless you collect a bunch of it and inhale it on purpose, the worst thing that’s going to happen is red dust on your nice work clothes.

Maybe: Those reddish spots look like they could have grown there.  Stains like this are called foxing and are a pretty common sight on older papers, stored in humid conditions. Some say they are a kind of mold that arises when traces of iron and fungus already present in the paper react to each other. But don’t worry; foxing doesn’t pose much of a hazard to you or the paper it appears on, as long as it’s properly stored.

Yes. You will, at some point, find mold on archival materials. The good news is twofold though! First, you prepared for this! You have gloves and a mask so there’s no need to worry about what you breathe in or touch. Second, mold is not necessarily a problem for you. Mold is everywhere! If you’ve been in a musty basement, near a compost pile, or a flood, you’ve come into contact with mold. So, you probably already know how you react in most cases. If you are mold sensitive, encountering it in small amounts with protection is a best case scenario. The mold almost certainly poses a greater threat to your new collection than to you. Separate the effected items from the rest of the materials and prepare to store the rest in a cool, dry environment.

Is this going to kill me?

Almost certainly not. Unless you’ve found a rabid weasel in your new donation, you will survive this. Even in the case of active mold, the worst you’re likely to experience is mild discomfort. And remember, you’re going through history here. You could find original poetry, family photos, or touching love letters lost for decades. So, if you’re nervous about going through dirty materials here’s my advice: use protection, go slow, and enjoy yourself. This is going to be fun!

Editor’s note: this post was originally published October 10, 2016.

2 replies

  1. Ah, but most archivists and conservators object to the use of gloves when handling paper–even nitrile gloves–as you are more likely to damage the materials that way. The gloves are a barrier between you and the paper, so you can’t feel the paper very well, causing you to mishandle it. Photographs should be handled with nitrile gloves, but otherwise most in the field agree that gloves do more harm than good. (I thought everyone knew that?) Sorry, germaphobes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s true that generally you shouldn’t use gloves in the reading room, or when processing the average collection. One should be especially careful of leaves of paper and photographs. At my current job, we have plenty of white gloves and little occasion to use them. But, in the case of an initial survey of a collection that may have mold (when you aren’t dealing with materials on the item level), gloves aren’t out of the question.

      Liked by 1 person

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