Written by Jamie Marie Wagner, 2nd year
October is Archives Month, and while it’s the perfect time to reevaluate your repository’s preservation protocols, the Halloween season also tends to coincide with a rise in supernatural activity in our cultural heritage institutions. You may be thrilled when your patrons show increased interest in local lore, legends, and spooky tales, but never forget that incorrect storage and handling of spiritually significant objects can expose your collections to serious preservation concerns, including plagues of locusts, ectoplasmic goo, demonic possession, and the leaden, engulfing misery that one feels upon glimpsing the afterlife’s cold, gaping void and recognizing the true vastness of its eternal meaninglessness. School field trips are also common!
For the safety of your collections and all of our souls, we’ve compiled the following resource, a series of tips, tricks, and best practices for protecting your archival material from paranormal and supernatural exposure.
You may be well aware that higher temperatures tend to increase the speed of most chemical reactions, including those that cause lasting damage to paper materials. At the same time, high humidity can encourage the spread of mold and chemical deterioration, while very low humidity can leave paper more susceptible to shrinking and brittling. “Huzzah!,” you may think, as the cold breath of a lonely spirit creeps down your neck and fills your heart with a sobering chill. “This drop in temperature will be great for preservation!”
In fact, according to Paul N. Banks and Roberta Pilette’s Preservation: Issues and Planning (ALA, 2000), archival records are hygroscopic, meaning “they take up and give off moisture in response to the ambient relative humidity” (115). As a result, rapid fluctuations in temperature and humidity can be even more damaging to materials than a steady, less-than-ideal environment.
Do not store valuable records in areas of recognized cold spots in your repository, like the office where the first cataloger died suddenly after hearing about the transition to EAD. The abrupt drop in temperature when a specter enters the room can be an unwelcome change to physical materials.
Another consideration when choosing storage locations is permeance, defined by Banks and Pilette as “the degree to which water vapor can pass into and through the building envelope” (126). They recommend shelving materials away from exterior walls to avoid condensation, mildew, and, we can assume, blood, viscera, or the passing through of small companies of fallen civil war soldiers.
(On the other hand, the underground film vault at the Wisconsin Historical Society has some moisture problems, and the hanging black tarps on the walls can, at first glance, be mistaken for Babadooks.)
Light of all frequencies – whether visible or invisible – is a form of energy that can damage collections by warming temperatures, fading or discoloring papers, and weakening material bonds. In general, higher frequency light (especially UV daylight) is more damaging than lower frequencies. While UV and blue light filters can be used to temper high frequency light, any light exposure will cause damage over time.
Keep lights off in the stacks when not in use, and avoid motion-sensor switches that can be tripped by roaming spirits or playful poltergeists.
FAQ: I have noticed that some spirits in my institution seem to emit their own light, a shimmering aura that warms the room and brings with it a feeling of sublime peace and happiness. What frequency is that light, and is it damaging to collections?
While spectral light itself has not been widely measured, all frequencies of light can affect your archival materials. Keep records closed in thick archival boxes to prevent light exposure. And remember that some spirits use a peaceful light to soothe and distract while they slowly infiltrate your psyche and/or pick your pockets.
According to MuseumPests.net, insects can be both a direct threat to collection materials and an indication that the environment is not properly controlled. Blunderers like flies and beetles burrow in from the outside, suggesting that doors, walls, and windows are not tightly secured. Indicators like springtails and booklice feed on mold and fungus that grow in warm, damp environments. Firebrats, silverfish, and some beetles will consume paper, cardboard, and book bindings, while moths will feed on fabric materials.
Though treating and preventing insect infestation generally requires a dedicated program of integrated pest management, consider also that you may be a filthy sinner and that God is sending you a message.
Audio-visual materials, including photographs, motion picture film, grooved media, and magnetic tape, carry unique preservation concerns, including color fading, vinegar syndrome, sticky shed, palmitic acid, and delamination.
In addition, multimedia materials are uniquely at risk of a phenomenon called “projected thermography,” “thoughtography,” or “psychic photography,” where film and magnetic tape may be exposed or altered through contact with the psychic energy of particularly disturbed individuals. It is recommended that multimedia objects be kept in separate polyethylene or polypropylene cases, sleeves, or cans to prevent the spread of corrupting forces like anger, fear, or unhappy memories. Further, you reserve the right to deny archival access to unaccompanied children with long dark hair and wet Victorian pajamas.
Preservation environments can be monitored with the use of hygrothermographs or hygrometers, which measure and/or record temperature and humidity, and light meters, which indicate the level of light exposure to a particular area.
EMG meters and Geiger counters may be used to detect fluctuations in electromagnetic fields and radiation, and EVP recorders may be used to capture messages communicated from beyond the grave.
Some preservation experts recommend isolating new acquisitions for up to 1 year to address issues of insects, mold, or haunting before they spread to other collections. Particularly disturbed materials should be isolated indefinitely, and try to avoid prolonged eye-contact.
Exorcism (a.k.a. spiritual de-accessioning):
The performance of the rites of exorcism is not recommended on archival material. Chemical damage can be incurred by material exposed to holy water or pea soup, and physical damage is likely upon the release of trapped souls from cursed objects. Consider demonic possession to be an interesting element of provenance.
FAQ: There’s something weird, and it don’t look good. Who you gonna call?
Contact the American Institute for Conservation National Heritage Responders for your emergency conservation needs.
Finally, it should go without saying that the following activities are not recommended for outreach events or team-building exercises around at-risk heritage materials: smoking, food or beverage, ouija boards, divination boards, light-as-feather-stiff-as-a-board, Bloody Mary, Candyman, “Day-O (Banana Boat Song),” all work and no play, and pottery demonstrations.
We hope these guidelines will help you to keep your materials safe, your patrons happy, and your familiars satiated this Halloween season. Check back in the future for more tips on planning for other very real preservation threats, including alien abduction, spontaneous combustion, hodags, Cloverfield monsters, and roving bands of post-apocalyptic marauders.