The Archives Need to Breathe

Publication Date
February 27, 2020

A historian’s blog cautioned to be meticulous about ritualistic preparations. I approached the French national archive of activities in its overseas possessions by introducing myself in formal, distant, yet friendly tone, presenting proof of identification, dressing modestly, and placing my bag neatly in a locker, only bringing permissible items into the reading room: a computer for notes, its charger, a pencil for more notes, a smartphone for photos. At my numbered desk station, I spent a few hours sorting through a binder’s listing of colonial administration papers regarding Madagascar, finally settling on a small starting list to request from the catalog of 38 kilometers of archives, 60,000 maps, 150,000 photographs, and 100,000 library works. But the archivist shook his head: “No, we are closing for the day, you need to come back tomorrow morning.”

The next day the “non” was different: “Désolé, Madame. Il y a des champignons.” We do not know how long it will take to clean up the multicellular parasitic mess from our Madagascar documents. Maybe one month, maybe six, or a year, who’s to say?

Where there is moisture, there is often mold. The culture of a multicellular microbe thrives in the deep and dark, the secretive and undisturbed. It spreads rapidly, though its speed is always indeterminate, by forming spores that germinate to grow more spores, producing a slinking effect. The scientific word for mold propagation is to colonize. A colony is technically when many hyphae of the same mold grow together in a network. Any historical library extensive in surface area is terra nullius for the competition and coexistence of mold settler colonies.

These archives are discreet, modestly housed in dank storage reserves. Traces of undisclosed and unspeakable colonial conduct are reassembled by the attentive, but it is impossible to measure the incommunicability of what is missing. The collection’s historical baggage can only be considered undisturbed in the sense that certain sections are not popular thematics of interest, going unconsulted for long periods of time. But that would not be entirely true since, in efforts to decentralize papers from what used to be the ministère des Colonies, the archive I was attempting to access was disrupted in its move from Paris to the south of France. Colonial archives are always disturbed, of course, in the paranormal sense, and disturbing for those who live colonialism’s consequences. But the motion of the documents is not the measure of disruption. And untouched does not mean out of mold’s creeping reach.

Mold does not produce its own food; it is heterotrophic. Archive mold feeds on sources, citations, bibliographies, all organic materials. The daring, reaching hyphae, or flaments, are characteristic of fungus, of which mold is a subtype with over one hundred thousand species. Hyphal growth pierces through exterior veneers in its search for nutrients. The extending structures inject degrading substances to make material more digestible—a slow, seasonal feast, sometimes leaving a colorful mess, other times just gray. Repeated exposure to mold, and inhalation of noxious mycotoxins can also be harmful to humans in close proximity, causing allergic reactions, asthma, and chronic lung irritation.

France is considering throwing out a large portion of its archives, only keeping what the state and cultural departments determine as essential. Funds for staff upkeep and storage space are limited. The archives, many of which have never been opened, are time-consuming and expensive to protect and preserve because of the mold, among other threats.

A friend tells me professors are now asking students to propose PhDs with long lists of potential archives to lay claim to the unopened boxes, in an effort to demonstrate their worth to future research. I wonder where the organic material goes once it is deemed inessential, and all that might sprout from a composted mound of colonial and bureaucratic rot.

Jurisdiction over biotic resources, trash or treasure, extends beyond the ethics of recycling paper trails of colonialism. Exploitation of natural resources of former, overseas territories continues. These operations are justified by the paradoxical logic that resources must be extracted, catalogued, and named in order to conserve them. Madagascar, with highly coveted precious stones and endemic flora and fauna, is subjected to this colonial approach to global resources in which claims to natural world expertise seem to answer for unchecked access to land exploitation by unelected managers.

Conservation of an archive is different from land conservation, however. Archival preservation seeks to protect patrimony from the natural process of the degradation of organic matter—paper, dead plant material—denying the fibrous cellulose pulp its ceremonious return to soil. Like a pastoral forest or a bog, its identity in its present form is already overdetermined and too politically valuable to be eaten by fungus. It is entirely its surface, under threat.

The fungus-fighting staff and the very architecture of the space tries to keep it inhospitable to growth, keeping it a clean, airy, and stable environment. In the natural world, mold spores are everywhere. In the archive, elements are controlled to minimize their presence. It requires diligent surveillance, but mold is not visible to the human eye until it is already thriving.

Early mold detection can salvage and stabilize a collection through careful execution of practiced techniques, all of which take time and care. Means of disarming the fungal threat include isolating the objects, deactivating the mold, removing the dead and dry mold, cleaning, and monitoring. Personal protective gear worn after a mold outbreak looks like an astronaut suit. Colored blooms cause stains that cannot be removed and sometimes look like dust from Mars.

Mold lays dormant, undead but present. It is inevitable in archives, but nearly undetectable until it has developed full-on. An article by the American Chemical Society recommends sniff tests— an olfactory material degradomics as it is called— to determine the condition of old books. Such a relatively informal procedure hints not only at an indication of the type of paper used, its food and coffee stains, and perhaps the lived-in conditions of how it was held, but also notes of the emergent ecosystem in its pages, between the stitches, in its binding.

This smell, most probably the smell of your favorite old bookstore—the one with a basement or attic, a collection that hardly rotates and a staff that changes even less—is the mustiness of the decay of organic matter helped along by mold. To book lovers, the smell is book pheromones. But that smell which can be intoxicating can also be toxic; specific smells signal deterioration before it is too late and the damage is done.

Taking a book home could infest an entire bookshelf. In doing this research, I began to worry about the state of my own books in my mother’s basement. WikiHow assures me that I can place them in a box of kitty litter, baking soda, or put dryer sheets between pages. The books and journals and magazines and scraps of paper I want to keep are not from the 18th and 19th century. They also don’t indict an entire nation, its politics, and its population in a crime against humanity. The webpage does not say anything about potential intoxication from the fumes of digested pages.

The threat of nature and its boundary-crossing into the human sensorium has always figured into colonial relationships. In Western and European visions of the world, a nature-culture divide necessitates the existence of nature and therefore always calls it into relation. In this view, culture in all of its industrial iterations is in tension with nature, its complement and detriment. Nature needs to be controlled, disciplined, and contained. This inverse, symbiotic, mutually reinforcing relationship between the distinct nature and distinct culture makes nature a protagonist or antagonist, sidekick or crush or nemesis in any story the West tells itself about itself. It also contains the counter-narrative which would destroy its entire self-conception, the decay of its original meaning.

When nature protests being made property, it can be as large-scale as a water crisis or a noxious sentence, at best a slow-leaking nuisance. After foods and disasters, mold is ubiquitous. In the aftermath, mold is another threat, an opportunistic, slow theft, often in conditions where concerns are more pressing than dampness and decay.

In the documents I do manage to consult at other archives, colonizers always wrote about the weather. Complaints about heat, rain, humidity, and wind-fueled waves occupy large parts of the travel journals of missionaries, scientists, and administrators. As much as tempests were blamed for the white man’s discontent, the conditions were also seen as potential challenges with high rewards. Mosquitoes, flash floods, sapphires, carnivorous mammals, volcanoes: each holding a potential conquest. This reverence for nature, simultaneous adoration and fear, paired with imperial thirst, encouraged “experts” and hobbyists alike to database, catalogue, and sample for exploitation once control could be secured.

These experts amassed millions of objects and sent them back to Europe. There, they placed these under scrutiny before forgetting about them, many falling into disrepair, many tucked into bags and boxes, envelopes and pieces of cloth that have not since been opened. Once the world has been named, it can be properly managed. But according to who and with what permission?

The actions of nonhuman agents in history extend beyond a record of the capture, but the recital and restaging continues in museums, journals, and new archives. I shift to sifting through the 19th century herbarium specimens sent directly back from French-colonized territories to Marseille’s colonial museum for analysis. Many of the plants have been pressed between sheets of newsprint, often colonial bulletins. Some have been shuffled into more formalized, pH-neutral herbarium paper, even though newsprint protects the paper well. This archive, too, comes with its own set of toxicological concerns, which are acknowledged as coming with the territory of categorizing specimens. Working at the former Marseille colonial museum, which took specific interest in Madagascar’s useful, medicinal, and toxic plants, I flipped through folders of dried plants, and read about lab technicians in the 19th century who fell ill upon contact with certain specimens by touching the oils and then their eyes or mouth.

Lead, mercury, and arsenic have all been used on old herbarium specimens to keep away pests, seeking to preserve isolated plants. Now, the freezer, a hostile environment for bugs and other living organisms, is used to tear the plant from its preexisting relationships. It is still advised that people who handle specimens before 1989 wear gloves and work in a well-ventilated space.

Lack of air is a leading cause of mold infestations. Archives need to breathe, just not so much that pests and microbes can sneak their way into companionship with the historic materials. Toxic compounds produced by the mold make their way into the lungs of archive keepers. The archive turns sour, with fungus from floods and poor structural integrity and the use of arsenic poisons, the very keepers of the collections. Proximity to the colonial cache intoxicates.

Are the collection’s contents leaking their way out, too? Some of the collection’s objects and documents are also becoming digitized, released only to be frozen in new digital frames. Who will fight the data mold? Why will it continue to be stored in France even when simultaneous multi-site access will be possible?

Liberation is leaky. Touch begets change. Feedback is unavoidable; reopening folders disturbs active spores which rebel, create, and live. The questions of repatriation— a handing back—of objects resurfaces with Benin’s demand for France to return stolen bronze statues. Unesco is revisiting the conversation on the politics of museums. The discussion remains largely about art, obvious, three-dimensional objects with their own preservation treatments. The formerly biotic, natural history and ethnology, falls under the legal domain of materials cursed to a fate of post-colonial limbo. The trees used in paper precede the pillage of pulp and certainly the colonial laws printed on its now-archived surface.

When mold degrades, uncontrolled, there is some remainder it never fully digests. There is no foretelling which boxes, chapters, phrases, or letters might hold after the fungi have done their work.

Mold destroys and degrades. Or so we are led to think. In the midst of its presumed destruction, it generates new worlds. The hyphae edge through empire ruins toward a promise of post-colonial rebellion. As mold moves through space in unpredictable ways, what can and cannot — what will and will not —be preserved, if anything at all, is unknowable.

This essay first appeared in HUMANxNATURE in 2018.

Publication Date
February 27, 2020
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