The Archival Chamber of Horrors

by Alethea Drexler, archives assistant

I have a different kind of scary blog post for you this week.  Well, it’s scary if you’re an archivist.

Phil Montgomery, the archivist, and I do a lot of different things here, but when people ask me what I do most of the time, I tell them I put stuff in boxes.  Well, I put stuff in folders, and then in boxes.  I don’t say this to make what I do sound tedious; I say this because storage and handling of materials are important.  Inattentive and misguided treatment of papers and artifacts can do a lot of damage and cause a lot of loss.

Some of the common problems are minor:

1) Paper clips, staples, and paper pins

Paper clip indentation

A lot of the paper material donated to us is held together with paper clips, staples, and, if it’s older, paper pins[1] or brads.  Paper fasteners are relatively innocuous–they leave indentations or small holes in the corners of the pages, but that’s about it.  Things get much worse, though, if the papers get wet.  The metal fasteners rust and “melt” into the paper, leaving residue and making the fastener almost impossible to remove without tearing away part of the page.  (Thankfully, we haven’t seen this much and I couldn’t come up with an example of it to photograph.)

2) Non-standard storage containers

Suitcases, shoe boxes, coffee cans . . .

Some makeshift storage container are worse than others.  On the up side, they do protect items from sunlight, dirt, and general wear and tear.  On the down side, they may not allow air circulation, and they may be made of materials that contribute to the aging process.  I recently had to throw out an old suitcase that I owned personally because it had plastic components on the inside that decayed with age and ruined some fabric that I had stored inside.  Live and learn, right?  The suitcase in the picture is battered and rather dirty, but it did help protect the items inside.

Cardboard and paper containers can be troublesome, too, but I’ll address that in the Newsprint and Cheap Paper section below.

3) Vermin


Bugs are kind of self-explanatory.  In addition to being creepy, they eat paper and glue, and leave eggs and droppings behind.  Ugh.  The bug in this picture was part of a massive and incredibly annoying cricket invasion that we suffered because of this summer’s heat wave, but we worry more about roaches and silverfish.

Mammalian pests are at least as bad.  I like mice, but as pets and not running rampant through my books and papers.

4) Newsprint and Cheap Paper

Even those of us who don’t obsess over paper for a living have probably noticed how quickly discarded newspapers turn brown and become brittle.  Newspapers, magazines, low-grade writing paper, and inexpensive books, which were meant to be read and discarded quickly, are usually printed in inexpensive paper that has a high wood-pulp content (as opposed to a high cotton or linen content), which makes the paper more acidic and susceptible to aging[2].  Boxes made of non-archival cardboard or wood are also highly acidic.  Not only do the items themselves degrade quickly, but they can contaminate things with which they are in contact, causing deterioration and staining.  “Acid migration” is when acidic components from one item transfer to an item next to it[3].

In the picture below, the letter copy on the left, which was typed on a low-grade writing paper, has caused staining of the better-quality paper on the right.  They were also stored in old-fashioned wooden file boxes, which could not have helped.  Good-quality papers with high cotton and linen content age remarkably well: In the same collection as the items below, we found many letters printed on high-grade rag paper that were snow-white and supple despite being nearly 90 years old.

Acid migration

The page below actually has the outline of another, smaller, piece of paper that partially protected it from the cheap paper that caused the discoloration.

Shadow of its former neighbor.

5) Leather

Leather items such as book bindings are subject to an ailment called red rot[4], which causes the leather to deteriorate into a reddish powder.  Wikipedia[5] claims that red rot is a problem especially in areas with high heat and humidity, and Houston definitely qualifies in those respects.

This poor doctors’ bag has a bad case of it (most visible at the corners):

Rot on a leather bag.

6) Plastics and rubber

I mentioned above that I had to throw away a suitcase whose plastic components had degraded.  The “plastics” used in archival storage materials are usually polyester or Mylar.  Non-archival plastics and rubber can decay in all kinds of creative and unnerving ways.

Below is a 60-year-old rubber band.  Rubber bands sort of liquefy, and then harden, as they age.  This one isn’t too bad; the first time I encountered a packet of papers secured by rubber bands that had turned first to goop (that’s a technical term, right?) and then to crust, I thought the rubber was . . . I’m actually still not sure what I thought the rubber was, but it made me drop the whole packet in shock and scurry off to wash my hands.

Gooey rubber bands

There are no longer any rubber bands at my house.

Our old friend the Jones Motor Basal metabolism machine was another good example of rubber aging badly: Its bellows had dried out and hardened.

I ran across some new varieties of plastic unpleasantness in the collection that I am currently processing.  The collection includes several boxes of slides, which are stored in pages of plastic sleeves.  Unfortunately, the sleeve pages are made of all kinds of non-archival plastic and some of them have gotten both sticky and greasy with age.  They’re from the mid-1970’s through the mid-1990’s, so they aren’t even particularly old; some things degrade very quickly.

You can see how the sleeves are sticking to the slides:

Greasy slide sleeves

Up close, you can actually see the oily exudate on the plastic:

It even left oil spots on the paper dividers between the sleeve pages (I added the arrows):

Oil spots on the paper

I also found a few pages of negatives whose protective sleeves were beginning to stick.  These had to be cut open to get the negatives out (the dark areas at the near end are where the sleeves are sticking to the film):

Negative sleeves

7) Tape

Tape seems so useful and so innocent, but one of the major guidelines of preservation is never to do anything you can’t undo, and that includes ink, most glues, and tape.  I literally went through a measly half a roll of Scotch tape in my first six years here, and none of that went into the historical collections.

Tape, like rubber and newsprint, is high on the list of things that do not age well.  Not only does it not do its intended job indefinitely, it does a lot of damage to the item it was intended to repair.

The document below is an application for a license to practice medicine in the state of Texas, from Institutional Collection #58, Texas State Board of Medical Examiners.

The brown marks along the fold at the bottom are residue left by the adhesive on old cellophane tape.  Obviously, I would rather not see any adhesive residue on this at all, but it’s not the worst I’ve seen.

Tape. Lots of tape.

The tape on the photograph is worse.  Eventually, the adhesive will dry out enough that the cellophane backing will flake off, but the adhesive crust will be left behind.  Trying to peel it off would ruin the photo.

"Hey, you kids--get off my lawn! And take your tape with you!"

But wait–what was that we saw across the top of the application?  It was just a faint line.  Let’s take a closer look.  It looks like . . .

. . . more tape!

More tape!

In sixty years, we’ll have another generation of tape to turn brown, leave residue, and flake off.  Sigh.

8) Water damage

I probably don’t need to explain that lot of things go wrong when water gets involved with papers and artifacts.  I’ve already mentioned rusting paper fasteners, and that is one of the least problems.  Large amounts of water from broken pipes or storm flooding are often catastrophic; the Historical Research Center lost chunks of its collection to flooding caused by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, and the material that was flooded but salvageable will never be the same.

I’m not sure if the licensure application below was a victim of Allison or some other occurrence, but it’s in rather rough shape.  It’s wrinkled; it would have been freeze-dried after Allison, but freeze-drying cannot restore papers to their original size and appearance[6].

The black marks across the top are mildew staining.  This infection is no longer active, but mildew can be a serious problem, especially in places like Houston where heat and high humidity create a prime environment for it.  If it isn’t caught, it can spread quickly and contaminate a lot of adjoining material[7].

Water damage

The blue marks are ink that bled through from the other side, which means that not only do we now have ink blots on the file, but the information that was written with the ink has been lost.

9) Miscellaneous dirt, grime, and contaminants

This covers a lot of things, no pun intended.  Alas, I didn’t think to keep a list, but we’ve certainly handled items besmirched with all kinds of unexpected and/or mystery substances.

The papers below came from a large group dating from the 1910’s and 1920’s, that came originally from the old State Lunatic Asylum in Austin.  The black flecks are not mildew but coal dust.  We were told that the letters were dumped in a cellar either near, or in, an old coal bin.

Coal dust

I think I’d take coal dust over mildew, but they still had to be dry-brushed page by page to get rid of the worst of it.

Works consulted:

[1] Early Office Museum: Staplers, Paper Fasteners, Paper Clips page.  (I love this website.  Very entertaining for us history geeks.)

[2] Charles S. Tumosa, David Erhardt, Kathy Hufford, and Evan Quasney, “The Deterioration of Newsprint and Implications for its Preservation“, WAAC [Western Association for Art Conservation] Newsletter, Vol. 30 No. 3, September 2008.

[3] George G. Morgan, “The Destructive Power of Newsprint“, on, 2002.

[4] Red rot, The National Archives (UK).

[5] Red rot, Wikipedia.

[6] U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “Comparison of Drying Techniques“.

[7] National Archives at College Park, Maryland, “Mold and Mildew: Prevention of Microorganism Growth in Museum Collections”

Posted in Artifacts
One comment on “The Archival Chamber of Horrors
  1. Will Howard says:

    Excellent article, contextual and practical.

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