Thursday, July 3, 2008

Mold: Humble Beginnings

I was at a loss as to what to write about this week. Then, while shuffling through yet another box of 1920s papers, I came across this letter to the Chamber from Edwin J. Clapp (click on the image to enlarge):

I'm sure many of you, like me, have never heard of Edwin J. Clapp. I did a little googling and quickly found that, as I suspected, the letter writer and the author of the "couple hundred copies . . . moulding away" are one and the same. I haven't read the "Port of Hamburg" or the "Port of Boston" and I have no idea whether or not they merit being stored away by the hundreds in a cellar. What was particularly interesting to me about this letter though, is the fact that anything is being stored away in the cellar at all. Ok, a surplus of books, I guess, is acceptable, especially if you have a few hundred copies. But what else is acceptable to store in a cellar?

I ask this question (rhetorically, but feel free to answer it) because it seems that along the way of the life of this collection, someone, somewhere decided that many things can acceptably be stored in a cellar. Books. Ledgers. Correspondence. Photographs. Memorabilia. An entire archive of an organization's history.

And that's a part of the background of the physical history of the NYCC collection. Some of it was stored in a basement. Probably a dank, dark basement--is there any other kind? (As a caveat, I'm from Texas where no one has basements. Or real attics, for that matter.) Some of it probably became damp from humidity, then dried, then probably dampened again. All of it got transferred to standard record carton storage boxes, and was then transferred to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where it was surveyed, checked for mold, mildew, and general grimey-ness, and was then shipped off to a long term storage facility where it waited until I was hired to process the collection.

This story sounds pretty standard up to this point. But sometimes mold isn't so obvious. Sometimes, you check for mold and it's not there, and then you check again and it is. Sometimes, mold appears, unexpectedly and to the surprise of the newly hired project archivist who is anxious to begin her project. Sometimes, that project archivist and three of her fellow archivists end up taking the 8AM train to a warehouse in New Jersey where over 200 boxes of materials have been quarantined to assess the mold problem and do some badly needed weeding. And that's when, as an archivist, I feel I can relate to Mr. Clapp's indignation on two points. First, who thinks it's a good idea to keep a "couple hundred copies" of anything (well, most anything)? Second, who thinks it's a good idea to store an archive in a cellar?

By the way, Gwynne wrote Clapp back to offer him the books, free of charge. He also concedes that these books should not be "reposing in our basement." If only more people had Gwynne's good sense.

Hope everyone enjoys celebrating our nation's independence this weekend. I will be riding my bike, playing badminton, and picnicking in the park . . . weather permitting, as always.



John Zarrillo said...

From my experience EVERYONE thinks it's a good idea to store their records in the basement.

John Zarrillo
Archives and Records Management Intern
Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Archive

NYCC Project Archivist said...

I know! Its kind of amazing that we even manage to get some of these collections before they are damaged beyond repair, isn't it?

Cathleen Miller said...

I often have to wear a respirator when I first go through boxes because of the amount of mold present. I hope you are taking precautions! I found myself almost unable to breathe after a few months of working on my current project.

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