Mayday, Mayday: Preservation Problems in Special Collections

May 1, 2015 Amanda Norman

By Amanda Norman, University Archivist (with images provided by TC staff)

When I first decided to pursue a career in special collections, I had visions of handling fascinating historical documents and helping researchers find that perfect record that would be the turning point in their research. And I do get to do a lot of that! But, I did not realize the extent to which the job sometimes would involve bugs, bad smells, and other unsavory finds. When people put away files—sometimes in attics and basements that aren’t climate-controlled—moisture/dryness, pests, and other challenges may settle in. And sometimes, they leave a permanent mark.

Today is the last day of Preservation Week, an observation of these sorts of problems and an effort to bring attention to them—for special collections as well as for individuals and organizations with personal libraries and archives. For MayDay, we’ve put together a compilation of distress calls we’ve seen in our work preserving materialsa preservation Hall of Horrors, if you willand some guidelines for what to do if you encounter such problems in your own records.

VinegarSyndromeThese 4×5 negatives are suffering from vinegar syndrome, prompted in this case by being stored in a non-climate-controlled environment. The physical damage in these is quite evident, but you may be able to detect the telltale vinegar odor before the shrinking and channeling really get going. Once film has vinegar syndrome, it can’t be reversed, but the deterioration can be slowed by housing in a better preservation environment. (Generally speaking, that means not too dry, not too humid, and COLD.) This film may be scanned with some degree of success, but the distortion of the original is now part of the image.

DecayingNitrateThese are degrading nitrate negatives. Nitrate is a sensitive thing to keep around–it is highly flammable and requires an excellent preservation environment. The NEDCC has some good guidelines for recognizing and handling such film. Nitrate was used for photos as well as moving image film. Digitization is often a good option for preserving the images.

Tapes-TemitesOne wouldn’t think that termites would be found in an old concrete stadium, or that they would decide to hang out in a box of Betacam SP tapes. One would be wrong. Unfortunately, the damage inflicted by these pests’ appetite is irreversible. And once pests are known to have been in materials, taking those materials into an archives is a great risk—even if the bugs are dead, you don’t know if they might have laid eggs (which can resist efforts to kill them). And we certainly don’t want to invite the bugs into our space, where they could infest other materials. Prevention is the ideal solution—but if you’re already past that point, check out the NEDCC’s guidelines for integrated pest management.

DroppingsThis doesn’t look so bad, right? Well, those little blobs you see on the edges of the pages…those are rodent droppings. Ick. Again, if you can keep the pests away, that would be the ideal. Failing that, you can pretty safely assume that if mice/rats have been here, insects probably were too. So follow the NEDCC instructions above, and then you’ll want to don some protective gear and use a stiff-bristled brush to get the droppings off the records.

16mmFilmHazMatWe’re not even sure what all is going on with this 16-mm film reel container. Rust, looks like some mold, too—definitely a health hazard. Fortunately, the contents of a container are sometimes unmarred, so you can carefully rehouse the film and discard the hazmat situation.

CoughDropIf you’ve done special collections research, you know that food and drink aren’t allowed. The above sample is an excellent illustration of why we have this rule. That was a cough drop—presumably partially used by the original owner of the records, and somehow, dropped into a file. The cough drop then fossilized its way into the records. Our archivists judiciously used heat (via a blowdryer) and a microspatula to loosen the adhesive properties of the cough drop so it could be removed from the papers. But really? Try not to lose your hard candy or cough drops into your records.

StraightPinFastenerWe see all sorts of fasteners in the archives, many of which have to be removed because they have became rusty and are eating through papers. Rusty paper clips and staples are enough of a challenge—but the old practice of using straight pins to hold papers together is a particularly pokey problem for our staff. Let’s just say we have added motivation to keep our tetanus shots up to date. To prevent rusty staples and such, try to use coated paper clips and stainless steel staples.

ReminderRuskCollege-badrepairOur print collections staff see many efforts to repair books, some more effective than others. Usually people use adhesives (glue, tape), maybe even try to sew a binding back together. In this case, someone thought they’d try a hammer and nails. As our library preservation specialist’s note says, this was not a success. The primary tenet of conservation is to make sure your repair is reversible. Often, a custom-made book enclosure is the best bet for keeping together the pieces of a book like this one.

These items are just a small samplings of the curiosities that can be encountered in old books, papers, and AV materials. We didn’t even get to digital media, which present a whole other set of preservation challenges. Despite the occasional grossness, it is our pleasure to work to preserve and make available our cultural heritage.

Here are a few websites with guidelines for taking care of your own materials:

American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC)

Image Permanence Institute

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