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This summer, during a seemingly innocuous project to add more description to our finding aids, an intern pulled a box from the Arthur A. Morris Papers, a Duke alumni who helped found the Neurosurgical Society of America, and was confronted with one of the worst four letter words in archives: mold. This fungus grows on the surface of its host and feeds on living organisms and dead organic matter. Once these fungal spores are present, along with sufficient moisture and nutrients, they will germinate. Elevated temperatures, poor air circulation, dim or no light, and accumulated dirt all accelerate the growth of mold. Without the presence of moisture, mold spores will lie dormant. After inspecting the Morris Papers, we were certain they were covered in dormant mold.
It is true that there comes in a time in every archivists’ life when she must confront this foul fungus. Using a careful eye at the time of accessioning and monitoring the temperature and the relative humidity of storage areas greatly diminish the chances of finding mold, but it does not guarantee that collections won’t be afflicted. Once mold has been identified, the materials should be immediately removed from other archival collection materials so as not to chance the mold spores spreading to other collections. In the case of the Morris Papers, the mold grew on paper, most likely before it came to the archives, but it became dormant because of a lack of moisture. Paper, a cellulose-based material, is particularly susceptible to mold. Before the mold went dormant, it caused significant damage to the papers it fed on in the form of residual dormant mold, stains, and a weakened paper structure.
After identifying and isolating the affected materials, the next step is to treat the mold by cleaning it off the papers. The Archives is lucky to have access to Duke University Libraries’ Conservation Services Department. The department head, Beth Doyle, shared her time, knowledge, and equipment with us. It took four people nine hours to clean the mold from the papers in seven folders. Beth trained us on how to use Conservation’s Nilfisk GM80 HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) vacuum to safely vacuum the mold and dirt off the papers, the fume hood to safely contain the materials as we vacuumed the mold off the papers, and a dry cleaning sponge to clean the dirt off the papers. After all that work, the now mold-free Morris Papers were transferred back to the archives and are waiting to be used.
Opening and looking inside boxes in archives always holds the element of surprise, but in the future, I would prefer the surprises to be limited to the amazing content of the materials in our collections—not mold growing on them. However, I am grateful to know we have the institutional support and access to Conservation’s tools and expertise to clean any future fungus we might encounter.