The Archive Lady: Brown Spots on Scrapbooks

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Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, shares her strategy for removing brown spots due to mold often found on scrapbooks and older documents!

Rachel from Louisiana asks: “I have several old scrapbooks that have brown spots on the covers. Can mold and mildew migrate to other materials in my home archives? What should I do?”

Rachel has brought up a great preservation question. She is experiencing brown spots on her old scrapbooks and is concerned about the spread of these spots, and rightly so. The “brown spots” that Rachel describes is actually what we call in the archives world “foxing”. Foxing is defined as “small, irregular, brown blemishes on paper which is consistent with mold or mildew.” (Society of American Archivist Glossary of Terms

Donated Family Bible with mold on cover, Houston County, Tennessee Archives
Donated Family Bible with mold on cover, Houston County, Tennessee Archives

These types of brown spots or foxing can infect genealogical documents, photos books or scrapbooks. Most, if not all, foxing is caused by mold growth. This means that there is moisture present, high humidity and no ventilation in the area where the genealogical records are being stored. Always remember: Heat + Moisture = Mold. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity do the most damage to genealogical documents and photos. Ideally, genealogists should store their genealogical records collections in an area where the temperature is maintained at below 70 degrees and humidity below 50. The best place to store genealogical records is in an interior closet. Never store records in an attic, basement, laundry room, garage or utility room. Do not store records near a heat source such as a radiator or fireplace. All genealogists are encouraged to invest in a temperature and humidity meter to be placed with your record collections so these levels can be measured and adjusted if needed.

Example of a temperature and humidity meter.

Rachel asks if these spots can migrate to the other materials and the answer is yes. Mold can grow in these conditions and will continue to grow and migrate to the other materials in Rachel’s collection. The scrapbooks must be cleaned properly to remove the mold and better storage needs to be implemented to deter further mold from growing.

This use of bleach is not recommended. Any chemicals that are used on genealogical records and scrapbooks could cause damage by breaking down the paper and could eventually disintegrate whatever paper the chemicals have come in contact. Also, do not use any detergents or mold and mildew cleaners that are typically used in the home. These contain chemicals that can cause damage.

Example of a temperature and humidity meter.

The easiest and best option for Rachel and anyone else with this problem is to take a slightly damp, clean cloth and wipe down the scrapbooks. This should remove most of the brown spots. Take a separate clean, dry cloth and wipe down the scrapbooks to remove any excess moisture. Another option is to take the scrapbooks outside on a very warm sunny day and let them sit in the sun for thirty minutes to an hour. The heat from the sun should kill off the mold spores and the ventilation and fresh air outside will help as well. If this procedure does not remove all the brown spots and the damage is more extensive, my professional advice is to call your local or state archives and talk to the in-house conservator for additional help.

Genealogical records need to be cared for and preserved in the best possible conditions or they will deteriorate and be destroyed. As genealogists, we have the care of our genealogical records and knowing how to preserve and care for them should be our top priority.

Legacy Family Tree Webinars and Quick Guides by Melissa Barker

Scrapbooks! Do you want to know how to find scrapbooks about your ancestors or do you have scrapbooks that you own and would like to know how to preserve them? Get my latest Legacy Family Tree Webinar and QuickGuide:

Scrapbooks: A Genealogist’s Gold Mine

Scrapbooks: A Genealogist’s Gold Mine

Scrapbooks: A Genealogist’s Gold Mine Legacy QuickGuide

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Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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