Ten enemies of books, #6: mould

“I am allergic to old books which give me sneezes and watery eyes”.(1)

Mould is bad for people. It’s an allergen, live or dead. It can cause flu-like symptoms and eczema. In cases of long-term exposure, it can make you chronically unwell. Unfortunately it sometimes grows on books.

Mould is bad for books. In fact, it’s bad for most anything you want to keep indefinitely and not have return to unidentifiable organic matter. Mould digests the surface on which it grows, burrowing through and between cellulose fibres, consuming words, sentences, paragraphs, pages.

If the book has been very wet at some stage the mould may be verdantly fluffy, sprouting multicoloured from the pages. But if the book sits somewhere that’s just very damp, you might not be able to see any visible signs of growth. Occupational hygienists might be able to measure the spore count on surfaces, which, if very high, could be contributing to your sneezes.(2)

Some people will be very sensitive to mould on books, others not. As Lemony Snicket once wrote, “If you are allergic to a thing, it is best not to put that thing in your mouth, particularly if the thing is cats.”(3) In other words, reduce your exposure. If you find yourself sniffling when you open an old book, it might be time to mask up and given them a brush vacuum. If you use a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner, this will remove a good proportion of dust and mould spores and other tiny annoyances.

1. A question on Yahoo! Answers. See http://sg.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090318223959AA5XBM1.

2. Mould is not the only thing that might be making you sneeze – dust and other particulate contaminants can also contribute. It might be worth looking at the wider environment as well. If your house is damp, mould will be growing on other surfaces too, contributing to your total exposure.

3. Lemony Snicket, 2000. The Wide Window. Harper Collins.

Fuzzy mould growing on books (they got wet when a pipe leaked)

This register has been so damaged by water and mould that the paper has disintegrated.

Further reading:

Reports of mould-related health problems were collected by Ellen MCrady in the Abbey Newsletter, Volume 23, No. 6, 1999. Some of them are a bit horrifying, really.

Emergency procedures for dealing with mold outbreaks on collection materials, prepared by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC).

This blog (rekishishiryonet) has an ongoing account of efforts salvage library collections damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It’s run by the Network for Historical Materials. This post has pictures of mouldy books, salvage operations and so on.