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Side by side 3/4 length portraits of women wearing PPE for mold remediation.
AFC technicians Carolina and Serena in PPE during the training session, with the ductless enclosure hood in the background. Photos by authors.

A Special “Cleaning Job:” Mold Remediation at the American Folklife Center Archive

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This is a guest post by two of AFC’s archive technicians, Serena Chiu and Carolina Restrepo, reflecting on some recent training they received in mold remediation and the work that the training helped them perfom.

In October 2022, the American Folklife Center began a 4-month project performing mold remediation on paper and photographic materials for several collections. In order to reduce the burden on Conservation Division staff and increase AFC’s ability to process collections more efficiently, the Center’s archivists and technicians received training on how to treat mold so that those collections can be safely preserved and made available for research. By having trained AFC staff do this work ourselves, we can make collections ready for researchers much sooner.

We conducted the work in the Collections Recovery Room (CRR) in the James Madison Building. All mold remediation work is performed in a ductless enclosure with a Nilfisk™ HEPA-filtered vacuum in the CRR, which captures most mold spores and fine dust from the working area and prevents it from getting in the air.

We were trained on operating the HEPA-filtered vacuum, applying appropriate cleaning protocols, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), and preventing cross-contamination. Due to the unique nature of each collection, Conservation staff members were frequently consulted on how to make situation-specific decisions.

Here are some of our thoughts and insights:

Serena: At first, I was concerned about working with mold because I did not know much about it; however, once I received proper training, I became more confident and was very curious to see what I would discover from the collection. In the beginning, I was not used to hearing the noise from the vacuum for a prolonged period of time. Sometimes, the noise was pretty loud, similar to what an airplane cabin sounds like during takeoff. Other times, the vacuum was turned down for the fragile papers, reminding me of the sound machine in my bedroom, and it has a calming effect.

Image shows a paper collection item beneath a protective screen. A hose from the mold vacuum can also be seen.
While vacuuming, a screen is used to protect the fragile papers. Photo by authors.

Carolina: Once you deck out in PPE galore, you never look at dust the same and no speck goes unexamined. Large and obvious storage spaces often come with environmental risks such as humidity and infestations. Sometimes, paper and photographic materials develop fuzz or intricate stains that look easy to wipe but can actually be hazardous if released into the air. Sleeve covers showed me how sometimes transparent residue blends in with the texture of containers. The precautions from mold remediation continue to inform my work outside the lab and even mundane things like managing allergies.

Serena: I was surprised when I first saw the condition of one of these collections, which needed a lot of cleaning. Many manuscripts had extensive inactive mold damage; others had dust, grime, pest frass, and mouse droppings. There were also papers that had been water damaged, causing them to be brittle and wrinkled. To protect the fragile papers during vacuuming, a screen layer, similar to a screen door, was laid on the papers. A vacuum head with a brush attachment was applied to the moldy area, lightly brushing the area with proper bristle action to prevent tearing. Even with care, the papers can still be ripped and torn by the vacuum, which can also be remedied by Conservation staff. I think that this collection was the most challenging collection that I worked on, and I often had to vacuum one page several times in order to clean it thoroughly, which was time consuming. The repeated vacuuming action was grueling, yet satisfying, as the mold disappeared into the vacuum. In other instances, the microorganisms were so ingrained into the papers that they could not be removed, and the mold stains were still visible after the treatment. I remembered a difficult day in working with the materials where I was handling six rolled-up oversized maps of thick cardstock, which were stubbornly stuck together and practically impossible to take one out at a time. The maps were extremely stiff and resistant to flattening. I had to use two weights that were over 10 pounds each to flatten the posters, whereupon I could begin to get rid of the extensive mold. My arms were sore from moving the heavy weights and fighting with the stiff papers after that restoration session.

Image shows a before and after comparison of documents that have been treated for mold.
Before and after treatment of some manuscripts from the AFC collections. Photo by authors.

Carolina: My experience working on these collections had several facets. On the one hand I was assisting with mold remediation, but on the other hand I was engaging with topics and ideas expressed in the materials. I enjoy working with different formats from large collections because after handling a couple thousand items, I find that topics I never thought about push me to reflect on what a person’s fieldwork might teach me about my own patterns. Each collection gifts me new pieces to the puzzle.

Serena: The materials treated in one collection include approximately 2220 sheets of manuscripts, 20 folded-up oversized posters, 43 photo prints, 226 negative frames, 24 transparency frames/slides, one medium-sized woven basket, two floppy discs and six rolled-up maps. These are just some examples of the variety of items that AFC collections include.

Image shows several maps with curled edges.
Rolls of maps, still curved up after two ten-pound weights were used to flatten them. Mold stains and water damage marks are still visible after treatment. Photo by authors.

Carolina: Overall, the mold remediation task requires much collaboration between the two technicians and the lead archivists of the collections. These collections also involved almost immaculate hybrid teamwork. We were all trained by Conservation to perform the mold remediation in full PPE but due to the severity of mold, it is best to take turns in the lab cleaning one item at a time. I rarely ever worked directly with Serena, so I developed the habit of showing her peculiarities that came up while processing, and this exciting exchange continued as we switched off during back-to-back sessions in the lab. A portion of the cleaning was performed on unique items and the lab sessions were spaced out to allow our archivist, Farrah Cundiff, to carefully plan the immediate rehousing. Most days I was in awe of how the process was seamlessly prepared.

Serena: After each session, the N95 mask left visible marks on my face, but it was worth it knowing that the collection was taken care of. Overall, I think it was a truly rewarding experience!

Comments (2)

  1. My son’s #1 trigger for his asthma is mold, so sometimes he’s my mold detector but I would like to know how to know how to take care of the mold problem properly. Thank you.

  2. I wish I had been exposed to this kind of training when I was a new professional. What a wonderful experience.

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