Magazine article American Libraries

Attack of the Killer Mold Spores

Magazine article American Libraries

Attack of the Killer Mold Spores

Article excerpt


Monday, August 24, 1998, began like a normal day at the Ellis Library at Arkansas State University/Jonesboro. But by 8:30 a.m. Jeff Bailey, team leader for public services, was in the library dean's office. "You're not going to like this," he said. "One of our students was shelving on the third floor and he found mold in several ranges of the monographs." I called our archivist and asked him to locate a consultant as Jeff and I rushed to the stacks.

I wanted to believe it was no big deal. How bad could it be anyway? In my 20 years as a librarian I had never encountered mold in the stacks before. Then I realized the bulk of that time had been spent in arid west Texas. Reality hit when I removed the first volume from the shelf and felt the furry spine in the palm of my hand.

To describe the discovery as blood-curdling is only a slight exaggeration. Mold attacks cellulose, the main component of paper. Some molds are especially drawn to the starch present in cloth bookbindings. Molds are commonly present in an inactive form. The right combinations of temperature over 70 degrees and humidity over 70% encourage growth of inactive spores.

After the mold has become active, even lowering the temperature and humidity may not reduce growth. While most molds are dangerous only to those with mold allergies, there are serious medical conditions that can arise from mold infestations in libraries. The mold is difficult to control, often grows back, and can entail a leviathan effort to curtail. Resistant strains have to be treated with carcinogenic chemicals in offsite vaults.

16 miles of moldy books

We surveyed the extent of the problem. Our infestation was serious. We estimated that 61,000 volumes, with an inventory value of $2.2 million, were affected. Later we revised the estimate upward to more than 100,000 volumes, with a value of $3.3 million. Laid end to end, the affected books would stretch 16 miles. We knew from the start that our resources would be limited and the hope of an easy solution was slight. We also knew that fast action was crucial.

Within 90 minutes we had established a support team and had a stab at a plan. Brady Banta, our archivist, had located preservation consultant Karen Motylewski, director and senior lecturer of conservation and preservation studies at the University of Texas. Reference librarian Sandy Lewis had done a literature review and located relevant print information, including a Solinet preservation leaflet, and we were meeting with the head of the physical plant and the environmental safety officer.

They warned us that we might have a situation that was beyond their control. Luckily, within minutes they had found the major cause. Humidity in the library is reduced when air is first cooled, then reheated and finally cooled again. The reheating function of the air conditioner had malfunctioned. This problem was compounded by a major water leak in a mechanical room, extending from the third to the first floor, and by weather that was more humid than normal.

Then I left the stacks, went to my office, and ordered portable dehumidifiers, thermohygrometers, a Hepa filtered vacuum, and Hepa air filters. I wrote a message to my boss saying these were unbudgeted expenses. I hoped that, at the end of the year when we could not pay our phone bills, someone would help. The budget administrator sent a message that I had done the right thing.

We are fortunate at Arkansas State University to have a vice-president for finance and administration and a physical plant director who believe in customer service and who recognized the significance of the problem. They assured us that they would do all they could to help us. Since then, I have received e-mail from other library directors who assure me that we are extremely fortunate. …

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