PRESERVATION OF OLD DOCUMENTS (III)

PLAGUES OF THE DOCUMENTS

( Literature Lovers)

Let's know the worst enemies of conservation.

They are : FUNGUS, BACTERIA, INSECTS and INK DEGRADATION

Many times, one of them is attracted by the others. Humidity and hot temperature attract moisture and funguses. Fungus is the aliment for many bibliophague insects. Warm rooms and humidity also attract bacteria. Bacteria acidify papers, and, at its time, acids attract insects and fungus. The cellulose of the paper, being a waste from the wood, is an aliment for termites. It's a biological chain of living beings trying to feed and survive at expenses of our documents.

FUNGUS

There's more than 200 species of fungus attacking libraries and archives, being amongst them the most known aspergillus and penicillium. They produce rounded yellow or dark brown drops, which spread and infect all the other documents.

The recommended prevention against this is a cold environment (50 to 70 degrees) and low humidity, less than 50%. It;s important to have air circulation, either. Although some species show up with a 10% of humidity. Once the documents are infected, they must be brushed with a soft, smooth brush and after that being desinfected with specific products.

 

BACTERIA

The most frequent of these microorganisms are cytophaga, cellvibrium and cellfacicula. They are specifically attracted by cellulose papers. Once installed, they produce acids degradating papers and inks. They brake the cellulose chemical chain, also degradating it. Some bacteria cause allergies to human beings.

The consequence of their action is fragile, crack and inconsistent paper sheets.

Documents attacked by bacteria must be immediately desinfected .

INSECTS

A common family of beetles on the places where documents are stored are the Anobiidae. There are many species of them, being the most frequent a wood-eater, called drugstore beetle or deathclock (stegobium paniceum). These coleoptera, of around 1 inch in lenght, use to eat cellulose, piercing the paper and leaving small tunnel-shaped circular holes. When it finish with a sheet it goes to other one below, and continues.

 

One of the most important threats for documents is the silverfish , which belongs to the genus of lepisma. It's a voracious bug, and eats wood, cardboard and papers. It is between 0.5 and 1.0 inches in lenght, and is attracted by glues, gelatine (of papers and photographs) and the dust of the environment. It devores only the surface, not making tunnels, leaving irregular holes with no wastes around. Silverfish typically live for two to eight years.

 

Termites can completely destroy a book, or anything they want. It would be enough to say that to reach the wood they pierce the concrete without any problem. They are classified as Neoptera, and are also called white ants, although they don't have any kinship with ants. They are attracted from the wood of some book covers, and of course, the cellulose of papers.

 

Besides all of these infestations, a destructive effect for old documents is the ink degradation. Specially the iron gall inks, which produce rust, decolorating, generating acids, and quickly deteriorating papers. An excess of humidity helps deterioration, and an environment with controlled humidity and temperature helps to stop the destructive action.

The oldest inks, used by Chinese and Egypcians, made with soot, gum arabic and isinglass, are the most stables and the best ones. They were in use in Europe until the 15th century. Since that moment, the iron gall inks were started to be used, a compound of iron sulfate, gallic acid and some agglutinant, in general gum arabic dissolved in water. Corrosion of paper, observed in many handscripts with iron gall inks, it's precisely associated to its basic components. Printing inks (newspapers, litography, offset), at contrary, are much more stable and permanents, because they are dissolved into a watery and greasy composition which preserves them.

CURE AND DESINFECTION OF SICK DOCUMENTS

There's everywhere a lot of recipes and suggestions about how to make liquids and solutions to desinfect documents at the household. I don't dare to recommend anyone of them. Rather I recommend to leave those tasks in the hands of experts. The lack of practice in these works could completely destroy a document, and, instead of being desinfected it could result in an illegible and washed paper. The only thing I can suggest to do at home is to brush the documents with a smooth brush, removing fungus and bacteria in this way, sometimes. But that's not enough for serious infections. Documents should be watched and checked at least once a month. Hint: if definitely the house conditions are not adequate, by any reason, the banks' vaults, in general, have the ideal conditions for preservation of documents (stable and low temperature and humidity).

CONCLUSION

Preservation and conservation are a fight against a process that naturally happens. It's not an easy task, but if initially all precautions are respected and documents are handled with care, worries are too much reduced. Many of the documents and photos we have received from our grandparents, it's true, have not been well conserved. We have the opportunity to improve those conditions, once we know how to do it. We have to understand that our current documents, also will be the old documents of the future.

To preserve documents is to store up our memory. And, as everybody knows, prevention is better than cure.

 

Pablo Briand, Miami Beach, May 2010.