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Take that you filthy red rot!

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This is a guest post by Amanda Felicijan, Digital Library Technician, Preservation Services Division.

Many people think of libraries as sanctuaries of knowledge, scented with an incense of paper and ink, the hush broken by the occasional benediction of a good “shush!” Others know libraries as places of controlled chaos, full of questions in need of answers (the sooner the better), papers in need of writing (by yesterday, please), and an endless cycle of books and disks moving around with librarians as sprightly masters of the storm. What is also true is that neither of these images capture more than a whiff of the deeper essences of library-ness.

At-risk books with red rot. Photo credit: Amanda Felicijan
At-risk books with red rot. Photo credit: Amanda Felicijan

Libraries are beautiful, filthy places. The dirt you encounter here is more than just the dust you would expect in any building, it is the dust of decay. It is the whisper of tired books becoming brittle and disintegrating, microfilm breathing its last gasp, newspapers shriveling into nothingness, leather dissolving into powder. It all sounds sort of darkly romantic until you realize that you’re breathing the stuff.

Of all of these ingredients, red rot is probably the most dramatic example you would come across. Red rot is a rusty maroon powder that, like pollen, once freed from its source ends up everywhere. Ev-er-y-where. Unlike pollen it lacks the potential up-side of the creation of new life. Did I mention that red rot isn’t always red? That’s right, it comes in flavors. The deathly hue depends on the color of the leather before the dry rot set in. That said, red rot is a catchier and far more dystopian-cool name than beige rot.

Smock covered with red rot dust. Photo credit: Amanda Felicijan
Smock covered with red rot dust. Photo credit: Amanda Felicijan

On the practical side of things, don’t even consider busting out a Swiffer because red rot laughs in the face of mortal cleaning tools. The stuff eats soap and spits out dry cleaning bills. I can’t begin to imagine what thoughts pass through the minds of the poor cleaning staff when they see the mess left behind by our book processing, but I’m fairly certain that they deserve medals to commemorate their dedication to a truly Sisyphean task.

In all seriousness though, should you find yourself facing this crud, please make certain that you have the proper gear. Wear a smock if you value your clothes. Wear a mask if you love your lungs. Wear gloves whenever possible and, if you cannot, be aware that you risk leaving behind fingerprints that will look suspiciously like those from a crime scene. Not that I’m familiar with such things.

Hands stained with red rot. Photo credit: Amanda Felicijan
Hands stained with red rot. Photo credit: Katie Daughtry

At this point I imagine that you’re thinking, “If these amazing, wonderful books are in such a state of disrepair, what are those fools doing to them?” Racing against time is what we are doing. Nothing lasts forever even under the most perfect of conditions and, as far as I’m aware, perfect conditions do not exist. Acidic paper, vegetable dyes, critters (bookworms are not a myth!), water leaks, humidity, chocolate smudges (at least I hope that was chocolate), all leave destruction in their wake. Ultimately time will always win, though we can slow it down its progress to varying degrees. This is why, following digitization, all of the books that we handle are then passed along for rehousing in protective enclosures and storage in carefully controlled environments. Having the digitized copy can reduce the amount of handling that the original volume receives, thus helping to preserve these documents for as long as possible.

At-risk books with red rot. Photo credit: Amanda Felicijan
At-risk books with red rot. Photo credit: Amanda Felicijan

So there you have it, a new vision of the librarian for you, cataloged under U for Unsung Hero (or Military Science if you want to be pedantic about it)! A blue smocked Quixote, the errant garden warrior, coated in the dust of ages, battling through chaos, corruption, and mixed metaphors in a fight with time itself for your literary pleasure! Take that you filthy red rot!

Comments (4)

  1. Fascinating, thank you. Sanctuary, chaos, and corruption: unsung library heroes, we salute you!

  2. Thank you for your colorful perspective about the old stains used to make antiqued literature. Are there any medical dangers that people should be aware of when purchasing old books with natural dyes and fibers? Does the library offer a video showing how ‘non scientists’ can reuse the unaffected pages of a document worth saving?

  3. So is there anything that can be done with books affected by red rot? Other than digitizing them?

  4. What an elegant elegy to the forces of decay! Very nice post.

    To briefly touch on the questions Kelly and Zsusza raise above, there are some guides to the care of your personal collections on the Preservation Directorate’s website here:

    Any particulate matter can irritate the lungs, whether it’s pollen, book dust, chemicals or smog, which is why we wear protective gear (gloves and/or masks) when working with dusty material, as Amanda notes in this post. Most books should not trigger medical issues unless you have strong allergies to one of their components, although active mold could be a concern if present.

    -Cindy Ryan
    LC Preservation Research and Testing Division

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