Mouldbusters! A new FitzGerald acquisition gets the preventive conservation treatment

Back in June, Geoffrey Purefoy, Mabel FitzGerald’s great-nephew who still lives at the family home in Shalstone, kindly donated to the Bodleian Library three boxes of books, journals, offprints, photographs and memorabilia which once belonged to FitzGerald.
These items were, long ago, sent from Edinburgh, where the phyisologist and pathologist had worked and lived from 1915 to the late 1930s, to her relatives in Buckinghamshire, and had been half-forgotten for years, stored away in a barn, alongside wool and farm supplies.

The material, including some of FitzGerald’s science books, offprints of many of her own publications, and notebooks and photos from travels in the United States (very likely, the famous Pikes Peak expedition!), is a most valuable addition to the FitzGerald archive at the Bodleian Library, and we were very lucky to receive it in time to include it in the current FitzGerald cataloguing project.

However, decades of storage had left their traces, and after a very short initial assessment by a very concerned archivist it became clear: this is a case for the Bodleian’s very own…


a.k.a. our colleagues from the Preventive Conservation Team, who are part of  Bodleian Conservation and Collection Care, and very conveniently for any suspected mould and pests emergencies, have their office at the Weston Library only a stone’s throw (…or walk across a 3rd floor corridor…) away from the area where archive material is sorted and catalogued.

Not only are Alexandra  Walker and her team extremely knowledgeable and always willing to help whenever an archivists turns up with a suspicious looking item or big question marks relating to packaging and storage of more exotic finds in the collection (locks of hair, dried flowers, microscope slides, teeth… we get it all!), they even agreed to give us a glimpse into the their work, and into the new Weston Library Quarantine Room:

Guest blog by Alexandra Walker, Acting Head of Preventive Conservation

When new collections enter the library, and colleagues have not had an opportunity to assess the condition offsite, they will often come through to Conservation and Collection Care for assessment if they are found to be in poor condition.

Piture frame with pest damage

Picture frame from the new FitzGerald material, showing signs of pest damage

The Quarantine Room is a new facility in the Weston Library, which is a dedicated space for this type of assessment work and for treating collections which are dirty, or showing signs of pest activity or mould damage. Before the availability of the Weston Quarantine Room, conservators were not able to store or treat larger collections in this controlled manner, as there was no dedicated area for quarantining large numbers of potentially hazardous, or harmful items safely. The fume cupboard would be used to treat smaller collections, or external contractors would store material in walk-in freezers for temporary storage.

The FitzGerald papers were a good example of a collection which had been stored in unsuitable conditions for  years. The collection had been stored in a barn and the resulting damage was clear! The boxes of material were all open and layers of dust and dirt had built up on the mixed archival material.

Mould damage in archives

Prevention is easier than cure: Archive material (not FitzGerald, luckily!)damaged by mould, beyond repair. Photo by Pemba.mpimaji (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

What can we do to save this collection from mould and pests?

We were lucky to have two Conservation students from Camberwell College of Art on their placements at the Bodleian for a month and the Preventive Conservation team were able to borrow Alice and Solange and give them some valuable experience in the Quarantine Room, looking at a very different side to library conservation. 

Our aim was to stabilise the items to make them safe to handle and store alongside other collections without risk of contamination. We first emptied the boxes, so we could look at the different types of material we would be working with. This included journals, hardback books, paperbacks, loose documents, photographs, framed photographs and one framed plant specimen.
If there are signs of pest or mould damage, we cannot safely store these items with the wider collection. This could risk infestation or spread of mould damage. We look for insect bodies, insect waste, losses caused by pests (bite marks!) and visible mould. This collection showed signs of mould and pest damage, but no signs of any live or dead pests!

Safety first…

We are able to clean collections safely in the Quarantine Room, but we do need to wear the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to do this. We wore gloves, FFP3 masks and aprons for cleaning the material. The masks protect us from mould spores which may be released during the cleaning. We clean the items using Museum Vacs (variable suction vacuum cleaners with a HEPA filter) and soft brushes or brush attachments. This can be seen in the picture below:

In the Weston Library Quarantine Room: Preventive conservators at work

In the Weston Library Quarantine Room: Preventive conservators working on the FitzGerald acquisition

We removed the cardboard boxes and damaged folders which were not part of the collection and replaced these with archival folders for the loose material and placed the cleaned books and journals in crates ready to be catalogued.
Some bound volumes were frozen, as they showed signs of pest damage. This was more of a precautionary measure, as the infestation did not look active. The volumes were frozen for two weeks in the Quarantine Room freezer. This treatment is an excellent, chemical free way to safely treat infestation in organic collections.
The cleaning took around 12 hours between four of us. We took regular breaks, and managed to work our way through the collection and return it to the archivist fairly swiftly. It is always exciting seeing new collections enter the building, even when in poor condition.

I would like to thank Alice, Solange and my colleague Joan for their help cleaning the FitzGerald papers. 

Alexandra Walker

Prventive conservation research

Preventive conservation research at the Bodleian Library

P.S. Preventive Conservation not only ‘bust’ mould and pest in order to protect the Bodleian’s precious collections. They also make sure the environmental conditions the material is stored in (humidity, temperature, dust levels) meet the exacting standards for special collections, advise and train staff and readers on the correct handling and use of rare and fragile materials, undertake research in new preservation methods, plan for collection salvage in emergencies – and much more.

Find out more about their fascinating work here.

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