Last week it was brought home to us how important it is to have good storage conditions that comply with the relevant British and international standards. A box of documents had been requested in the searchroom by our Senior Archivist, and on production it was found that the documents had what appeared to be live mould on them. At that point I was called in to confirm the finding. Mould thrives in poor storage conditions with high relative humidity and high or low temperatures, feeding on the proteins in parchment and glue and the cellulose and size in paper.
The box of documents had been kept at an outstore with no environmental monitoring systems or controls. There were areas of damp and massive temperature fluctuations, all threats to long term health of archival material. Poor storage conditions were a major driver for the relocation of the archive service in 2010. Outstores had been needed since the 1960s as the former building was filled to capacity, and very few were ideal for the purpose. The good news is that once moved into stable storage conditions mould growth will slow down and eventually die, a process which can take around 5 years or more. And we are entering our fifth year in the new building with the entire collection on site and in excellent conditions.
Just to be safe, other items and collections previously stored in the same outstore area as this box had to be examined. With help from Amanda (one of our conservation Volunteers) and Mary (who is with us on work experience) I set off on a mould hunt So far we have found signs of mould in 30 boxes.. Once mould is found the box is removed to our isolation area where the mould can dry out before cleaning commences. This has to be done using specialist tools and wearing personal protective equipment as the mould, is not only very dirty but can also be hazardous to health.
Mould can be in the documents before they come to us and we now have a system (and the space) for checking all accessions and cleaning and packaging them before shelving them in the strongrooms. The recent discovery was a reminder of the bad old days and an incentive to maintain new procedures. Staff are currently checking all boxes in the collection to confirm location and contents. Conservation needs are also being flagged with mould identification now a top priority.
Users and staff regularly comment on the benefits of being in a purpose built facility. It’s good to be reminded that the documents needed the move even more than we did!