David in Massachusetts asks, “I just received a filing cabinet full of genealogical records from my Grandfather’s estate. I want to incorporate them into my own genealogy records but the entire filing cabinet, including the records, has a musty, moldy smell to it. There is no mold present on the records that I can see. What can I do to get rid of that smell so that it doesn’t transfer to my own records?”
David has a great question about a situation that archivists and genealogists often encounter while working with genealogical records. Many times when records are donated to archives or records are inherited by individuals, they come with a musty or moldy smell to them. Like the records that David received from his Grandfather’s estate, there may not be any evidence of actual mold on the records but the smell is very much there. David is right to not want to combine the musty smelling records with his own records before the smell can be removed.
There are some options for David; however, it must be noted that there are times when the musty smell will not be completely removed. Sometimes the odor is so ingrained in the paper that the smell never goes away!
First and foremost, remove all the documents from whatever they are being stored in, like the filing cabinets. Being careful to keep the documents in the order they were stored, there may be a reason why the researcher kept the records in that particular order. Allowing the documents to “breathe” and be exposed to fresh air will help to dissipate some of the odor immediately.
Obtain a large plastic container that can hold all the musty smelling documents. Since David has a filing cabinet full of documents, more than one container may need to be used. Put the documents in the containers in single layers. Then put closet deodorizers in the containers with the documents but don’t let the documents touch the deodorizers. The closet deodorizers can be purchased at many stores and are usually found in the cleaning supplies aisle.
Put the lid on the container and leave in a cool, dark and dry place for a month. After that month, lift the lid and see if the musty smell has been eliminated. If the odor is still present, replace the deodorizers with new ones; replace the lid to the container and leave undisturbed for another month. Repeat this process until the odor has been removed which could take up to six month. Remember, if the musty odor has been on the documents for some time, it may never completely go away.
Another option and a less expensive option would be to put the documents in the containers and then place bowls of baking soda in the containers with the documents. Do not allow the baking soda to come in contact with the documents. Put the lid on the container and leave in a cool, dark and dry place for a month. After that month, see if the smell has been removed. If the odor is still there, replace the old baking soda with fresh baking soda and leave for a month. Repeat this process for as long as needed to remove the musty odor. This same process can be done with bowls of kitty litter in the containers with the documents.
Once the documents have been deodorized, they can be safely archived with other genealogical records without the fear of the musty odor being transferred.
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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