When Mold Attacks

by Anne Petersen

In a waterfront climate like Santa Barbara, mold can be a persistent foe. In our area, many people complain of finding foxing on their books, or little tufts of mold on leather shoes and clothing forgotten in the back of a dark closet.  Mold can not only attack your belongings, but it can also make you sick.  The spores, when disturbed and sent airborne, can lead to allergic reactions and in the most unfortunate cases, persistent lung infections.

At the Presidio Research Center, we rehouse and preserve collections with the hopes that they will out-survive the current and successive generations of staff and serve as a community resource far into the future.  Our abhorrence of mold is therefore equal to, if not greater than, that of the average person. Although we take great care at the Research Center to avoid introducing mold into the facility, monitoring for mold is a fact of life.

Brittany Avila and Laurie Hannah brush and vacuum mold from the pages of a historic scrapbook.
Brittany Avila and Laurie Hannah brush and vacuum mold from the pages of a historic scrapbook. Photo by Anne Petersen.

On a recent sunny afternoon, staff held a mold eradication session. We hope that some of the tips and tools we used that day may be useful for you when caring for your personal belongings.   The first problem we worked on was a red cloth-bound scrapbook including clippings and photographs of the El Paseo complex.  The scrapbook was properly housed and stored in our warm and dry archival storage area with strong air circulation.  A Research Center patron discovered the mold while flipping pages in the scrapbook and alerted the staff.  We found thick powdery black mold scattered across several pages, mostly at the edges of photographs and clippings, and inside the back cloth cover.  It had also spread across the outside of the back cover.

Closeup of the mold erradication process, showing.  Although the mold has bee vacuumed, you can see the stains left behind. Photo by Anne Petersen.
Closeup of the mold eradication process. Although the mold has bee vacuumed, you can see the stains left behind. Photo by Anne Petersen.

The staff was shocked at the extent of the mold, given the conditions of the building. How did it get there?   In 2007 the Presidio Research Center collections were moved from an earlier facility that did not have proper climate or humidity control.  We believe the mold could have infested the cover while in storage at the earlier facility, but may have been small enough at that point that it went unnoticed.  Stored in its archival box, and used infrequently by patrons, the mold could have slowly spread across multiple pages, as mold often grows in places with little or no air circulation.

Fortunately, when we began the cleaning project the mold spores had dried, and although they stained some of the pages, they were not sticking to them.  We wore masks and gloves during the project to keep from accidentally ingesting or spreading the mold spores.    Working outside (mold abhors the UV rays of the sun) we used a vacuum with a hepa filter and working downwind, slowly pushed the mold  into the mouth of the vacuum with a soft brush.  After completing the same on the back cover, we wiped the cover with alcohol to clean as much of the staining as possible. We will continue to check on the scrapbook to make sure the mold does not return.

Condition of one of the slide boxes upon arrival at the Research Center. Photo by Anne Petersen.
Condition of one of the slide boxes upon arrival at the Research Center. Photo by Anne Petersen.

The second project involved cleaning several buckram-bound slide boxes coated in a thick, but dry, green powdery mold.  The boxes are full of family slides from the early 1950s including images of many local Santa Barbara events. The donor brought them in recently during his preparations to move. He had discovered the collection in his home, left behind by the previous occupant, and hung onto them for decades. When the donor opened the lid of the box upon delivery, a small green cloud erupted from the contents.  We quickly lidded the box and avoided opening it again until mold eradication day.

After treatment.  What a difference! Photo by Anne Petersen.
After treatment. What a difference! Photo by Anne Petersen.

We carefully vacuumed the mold on all four sides of each slide box using the method described above, and then wiped each one with alcohol. The improvement was dramatic.  Now it is not only safe to open the collection within the Research Center, but we can finally explore the treasures contained within the boxes, and begin processing the collection for public access.

If you have questions about how to deal with mold on your personal belongings, you might be interested in the articles here and here that cover not only how to avoid mold, but how to eradicate it when you find it.  If you have precious boxes of family photos or papers in the garage or a dank basement or storage room, we encourage you to pay them a visit soon to check in and make sure they are clean and safe from mold, moisture, insects or animal droppings.  We see all of these problems frequently in newly-donated collections at the Research Center.  Kept under the right conditions, paper can last for hundreds of year.  Ideally, attentive care of precious and historic materials should begin before the collection arrives at the Research Center, where we are happy to continue its preservation.

Anne Petersen is the Associate Director for Historical Resources at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

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