The Archive Lady: Musty Smelling Old Books
Pat Richley-Erickson better known as “Dear Myrtle” in Utah asks: “How do you archivists remediate musty old books that they need to use, especially on a regular basis? Is there something home archivists can do? I recently purchased the 1881 Chester County, Pennsylvania history book from eBay. The book is so musty I literally am going to have to wear a mask to read it. While I don’t believe there are mold spores present, this book is horribly dusty and musty.”
Pat asks a question that archivists deal with on a daily basis and one that genealogists find themselves facing as well. I am so glad to see her refer to genealogists who preserve their family records as “home archivists” because that is exactly what you are and it’s a very important job.
Many times when records are donated to archives or records are inherited by individuals, they come with a musty or moldy smell to them. Like the 1881 Chester County, Pennsylvania history book that Pat purchased on eBay, there may not be any evidence of actual mold on the book, but the smell is very much there. Pat is correct to want to remedy this situation and is correct in not wanting to combine the musty smelling records with her own records before the smell can be removed.
There are some options for Pat, however it must be noted that there are times when the musty smell cannot be 100% removed. Sometimes the odor is so ingrained in the paper that the smell never goes completely away.
First and foremost, take a soft bristle brush and brush each and every page and even down to where the pages connect to the spine. This will remove any dirt, dust, grime or any other particulates that might be causing the musty odor. Then place the book outside during a sunny day. Leave the book outside for an hour at the most and not in direct sunlight. The fresh air and indirect sunlight should dissipate some of the odor and kill any mold spores present on the book. This action will not remove all of the odor and Pat will need to go to the next step.
Obtain a large plastic container that can hold the musty smelling book. Put the book in the container, making sure there is nothing else except the book in that plastic container. If you have documents and other items that have this same smell, you will want to put them in separate containers. Place silica gel packs inside the container with the book. Depending on the size of the book, you may need to use several of these silica gel packs. Be sure the book is not touching any of the silica gel packs. Silica gel packs can be purchased at any store where cleaning supplies are sold.
Put the lid on the container and leave in a cool, dark and dry place for a month. After that month, lift the lid and see if the musty smell has been eliminated. If the odor can still be smelled, replace the silica gel packs with new ones; replace the lid to the container and leaver for another month. Repeat this process until the odor has been removed which could take up to six months. Remember, if the musty odor has been on the book for some time, it may never completely go away.
Another option and a less expensive option would be to put the book in the container and then place bowls of baking soda in the container with the book. Do not allow the baking soda to come in contact with the book. Put the lid on the container and leave in a cool, dark and dry place for a month. After that month, see if the smell has been removed. If the odor is still there, replace the old baking soda with fresh baking soda and leave for a month. Repeat this process for as long as needed to remove the musty odor. This same process can be done with bowls of kitty litter in the container with the book.
Once the book has been deodorized, it can be safely archived with other genealogical records without the fear of the musty odor being transferred. This process may take some time but it is well worth it!
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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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