D is for Dust

D is for dust. And dirt. And mould, and mouse droppings, and all the other nasty stuff that gets onto archives. It is not uncommon for archives to come to us looking something like this. Or worse!



Old documents are often shoved away into a basement, or an attic, or a shed, and forgotten about for many years. For example, a firm of solicitors (lawyers) might keep their old files in a basement for decades. There may be a window or grill at street level, through which years of car exhaust fumes creep in and turn the exposed parts of the documents black. There may be mice, which find paper quite tasty. An attic might have bats or birds. Archives covered in pigeon poo are not a pleasant experience. Damp conditions lead to mould, which is a double whammy: live mould poses a health risk, and can also contaminate other documents.

When filthy, mouldy, or damp documents arrive with us they have to be cleaned up and decontaminated before they can be boxed and put with other items. Dirt is relatively easy to deal with. Sometimes items just need to be brushed down, although some will need more delicate spot cleaning with an eraser (latex works particularly well for removing grime). Live mould needs to be treated as soon as possible by a conservator. Damp documents have to be left to dry out. It is not unusual to come in to work and find papers fanned out over any available service in our back office area, air drying. Unfortunately they usually smell pretty nasty!

Despite our best efforts it is not unusual to find dusty and grimy items which have ended up in a box or on a shelf somewhere. Black hands and dusty streaks across our clothes are an occupational hazard. We joke that mid-brown or grey are the best colours for archivists. Wearing white is not an option.



8 thoughts on “D is for Dust”

  1. Sounds like some if the Irish parish registers I’ve seen over the years 🙂 we had a mould problem among our book storage for an education program…did not do anyone’s health any good


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