Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Shoe Boxes of Old Letters, Photos and Papers -- Part Three

Paper Continued

As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, the enemies of paper are water, mold, insects and time. The example above is typical of an old piece of paper that has water, mold and chemical decomposition due to the passage of time. Even under the best of conditions, most of the paper documents of the world will simply disintegrate. I am guessing that few people outside of archivists, librarians, some genealogists, and other historical researchers have ever seen or had to deal with paper as damaged as the image shows above. The blue discolored areas are mold and chemical decomposition.

I have acquired thousands of documents over the years and some have been in even worse condition than the image. I also have a collection of thousands of books and so I have seen paper in all stages of destruction. I remember one inexpensive paperback book that I acquired when I was a teenager. Many years later, I decided to read the book again and found it had decomposed into small tatters of what was formerly paper. On the other hand, I have handled books hundreds of years old and found them in almost perfect condition. This illustrates the fact that the quality of the paper and the conditions in which the paper has been stored can drastically affect the rate of decay.

Here are some observations on the various factors and causes of damage to paper including books, of course.


One of the most common insect enemies to paper and books is the common silverfish or Thermobia domestica. Here is a photo of a silverfish.

By Jscottkelley - Own work, CC BY 3.0, High-resolution photograph of a Silverfish-related (insect) with ruler (metric) for scale. Found in my house in Dallas, TX, USA. This is a Ctenolepismatinae, very probably Thermobia domestica
Silverfish eat the lignocellulose found in wood and therefore paper. They are almost impossible to eradicate entirely. But they can be controlled by keeping the area where paper or books are stored dust free and dry. Here is a quote from the South Australia Community History website article entitled, "Managing pests in the collection: Integrated Pest Management (IPM)" that talks about what to look for to determine if you have an insect pest problem.
What is at risk from pests? 
Organic materials are most at risk from pest infestation – paper, textiles, and objects made of materials such as wood, plant materials and fur.
Some pests are attracted to materials made of cellulose – paper, starch adhesives and sizing – and others to protein-based materials, such as wool, feathers and fur. Some pests eat anything. 
While not often directly consumed by most pests, inorganic objects (eg stone, metals and ceramics) can be damaged by general dirt and staining caused by pests. 
What to look out for 
Some signs that you may have a pest problem include:
  • Holes, surface grazing or bite marks in objects. Borer holes are usually perfectly round, while moth holes are more irregular. Small piles of fresh dust often accompany borer holes.
  • Droppings. (The polite term for insect poo is “frass”).
  • Eggs. Insect eggs often look similar to pale poppy seeds.
  • Some insects leave webbing from their larval stages.
  • Some insects leave cases and cocoons from their larval stages. These can often be difficult to spot as they may be made from the object itself.
  • Live insects, dead insects, and cast skins.
  • Some pests, such as termites, can be heard chewing.
  • Some pests, such as termites and rodents, can leave distinctive odours.
A few years ago, we had some documents stored on shelves in our garage. They were old business documents and not particularly important. We found that we had a termite infestation and they had chewed their way up the wall into the shelves and eating into the documents. We had to go through the entire termite eradication routine with holes drilled in the walls and floors and poison all around the house in holes. The treatment apparently worked because yearly inspections showed no further damage, but many of the old documents were ruined.

Here is a photo of some common termite of the infraorder isoptera.

Public Domain,
Termites are a worldwide problem. They live on every continent except Antartica. They are voracious eaters of anything made of wood or wood products. A termite queen can live up to 50 years. Good luck if you find termites.

There are a huge number of other insects that eat wood products. One you probably have not seen is booklice. Again quoting from the South Australia Community History website article:
Booklice graze on microscopic moulds that grow on the surface of paper-based material, leaving surface damage similar to that caused by silverfish. They are also attracted to glues, binders and paper sizing. 
Booklice are usually very tiny (less than 1mm in length) and are a slightly transparent brown colour. They do not have wings.
Here is a photo of some booklice or Liposcelis sp.

By S.E. Thorpe - Self-photographed, Public Domain,
Crickets also eat paper and so do many other insects. The best conservations procedures include isolating the paper products in clean, controlled areas. As I learned with my documents stored in my garage, that type of storage puts the documents at risk. It may seem almost impossible to avoid insects infestations, especially if you live in a warm, humid climate area. When we lived in the Republic of Panama, we lost many organic items to mold and insects. In Mesa, Arizona, where we lived for years, papers and documents kept indoors and in dry, dark areas such as interior closets were not affected by insects.

This series will go on indefinitely. Stay tuned.

See the previous posts in this series here:

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