archival consultant

The Air We Breath...

Bookshelf Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

The trend for the last few years has been for consumers to move towards more natural and non-toxic products: plastics especially are now Undesirable No. 1.  However, all sorts of things can off gas: furniture, carpet, know that new car smell everyone always loves? That’s actually from materials in the vehicle off gassing.  

So, you may or may not have heard of off gassing.  I know that even when the no-plastics movement started, I still hadn’t really heard much about off gassing specifically. Off gassing is defined most simply as: to give off a chemical, especially a harmful one, in the form of a gas.  Those smells you smell in a new car or from a piece of furniture are actually the product releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.

The first time I ever heard that term used was about archives, not plastics.  The Society of American Archivists uses the term outgassing and define this as: the release of material in the form of a vapor as a result of deterioration.  So, when items start to deteriorate, they give off a gas. Usually it is pretty obvious which items may be off gassing as they have a smell. The thing that I always think of immediately is blueprints.  There’s a flat file of blueprints that I’ve had to go through in search of something, and the whole file just reeks of vinegar! It’s the paper that is starting to break down. Blueprint paper is treated with ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide, so it’s not like regular paper is starting to decompose; it is the compounds on the paper.  The prints have given the entire archives area a certain vinegar smell to it. Typically, when you get that vinegar smell, most people will attribute it to cellulose acetate plastic in film. They even call it vinegar syndrome.

There are also concerns when it comes to the furnishings in a repository.  I once had someone asking me about some bookcases that had been donated to them and if they would be ok to use.  Upon inspection, the bookcases were made of MDF/particleboard. Don’t get me wrong, I know the budgeting constraints on most organizations, and beggars can’t be choosers, so by all means use the free bookcases!  But it’s important to note that some materials, (MDF and particleboard are notorious) contain toxic elements like formaldehyde that can be harmful. During graduate school, I worked at a law firm that handled different personal injury cases, and one branch of the firm had taken to looking into a particular big box flooring supplier as their products were allegedly off gassing toxic chemicals, like formaldehyde, at insane levels.  If you read my previous post, you’ll recall that after I had been asked about building suggestions for a new facility, part of my recommendation was to not use certain varnishes, flooring products, paints, etc. as they can give off toxic vapors. While the main concern is obviously staff and visitors that you don’t want exposed to potential VOCs floating around, you also don’t want your artifacts submitted to random chemicals that may be in the air.  

There are different tests that you can do to test the indoor air quality of a facility to see just how bad things are.  Home Air Check is one of the first ones that comes up if you do a Google search (this post is not affiliated or sponsored by Home Air Check), and there are others out there as well.  If you discover that you are working with less than stellar air quality, you can try an air purifier with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. This will work to filter out unseen nastiness that may be floating around.  But one of the simplest things you can do is to work to control temperature and humidity. Not only does low temperature and stable humidity lead to prolonged life of archival records, they can also help keep things from off gassing as rapidly.  

Sources for this post

From the Ground up...

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I was trying to think of what to write about for February when I got an email from a local utilities company asking to meet to discuss an historic landmark that we partner on to help maintain.  Since we’ve been in partnership on this project for years, I didn’t think much of it and assumed it was about maintenance or something we needed to take care of for the upcoming year. However, when we finally sat down to meet, I was woefully unprepared for the purpose of the meeting; the first question I was asked was: “So...if I wanted to build a museum, what would I need?”

Now, I have a pretty good handle on general guidelines for existing facilities but building a museum from the ground up is a bit of a bigger project, so I sort of sat there like a deer in headlights, I tried my best to blunder my way through, and offered up a suggestion of 10,000 square feet, and ADA accessibility ramps, and public space, and all sorts of random things that I feel like were not very helpful.  As our meeting wound down, I asked if I could mull this over and send some more concrete ideas once I’d had some more time to wrap my head around this idea and do a little research. So that is precisely what I did. Although, it was difficult because all I had to work with was, “we are looking at maybe building a museum”.  Without knowing more definite plans for the space, I basically was just blindly coming up with a concept with the hope I was going in the right direction.  

    For this project, Thomas Wilsted’s book Planning New & Remodeled Archival Facilities proved invaluable.  Again, I have decent knowledge about certain aspects of a museum facility and what is needed, but things like concrete footings and placement of support columns....not so much.  But the main things I tried to focus on were temperature and humidity control and disaster preparedness. My thought was that if you build a space to minimize the risk of water and fire damage while still being able to keep humidity and temperature stable, you can handle just about anything else.  So after some thinking and research, the following is what I came up with.

    For the building itself and its exterior, the structure needs to be well insulated in order to help with temperature and humidity control on the inside.  Many European facility planners suggest using multiple layers of stone and/or brick with air pockets and insulation in between to help the building maintain a steady internal temperature; and if the Europeans recommend something, I typically will also because it is my experience that European and Australian policies are ahead of the U.S.  As for the roof, a pitched roof is a must! Flat roofs tend to weaken quicker as water collects in certain spots which can lead to leaks. Proper guttering systems are also mandatory to ensure that water is taken away from the building and not pooling somewhere and causing damage. Also, try to keep any HVAC equipment off of roofs. Air and heating machinery have the potential to leak.  Also, any workers that have to come service the HVAC will be stomping around on the roof and also pose a security risk. Keep HVAC and other mechanical equipment in a separate area like a mechanical room as this is usually your greatest fire risk. Landscaping also needs to be taken into consideration to make sure that invasive roots won’t cause damage to the foundation, and that water won’t collect around doors and foundations also.  

    Now for the interior of the building.  First off, square and rectangular spaces are much more efficient and easier to work with in terms of galleries, archival storage spaces, research areas, etc., so I’d save curved walls and grand spiraling staircases for areas like the lobby.  If you will need structural elements like columns to help support roofs or upper stories, make sure to communicate this clearly to the architect so that they can be placed so as not to hinder traffic flow or block exhibit space. Floors need to be able to support anywhere from 50 to 150 (sometimes even as much as 200) pounds per square foot - archival stacks and museum artifacts can be heavy!  Also communicate to the builders that any bathroom or kitchen areas need to be placed as far away from collections storage as possible to minimize risk of water damage from leaks or a burst pipe. If it’s possible, leave ceilings open so that fire sprinkler pipes, wiring, and other mechanical elements are easily accessible in case of malfunction. Painting these components white can help to camouflage and give a feeling of openness.  Glass can also be useful in making a space feel more open and let in more natural light, however, do not put glass walls or windows in exhibit areas or in collections storage areas. Not only do windows allow for leaks, but the UV light that comes in is highly damaging to artifacts. Any windows or glass should be UV-coated and any interior light fixtures should be equipped with UV filters and/or LED lights to help mitigate damage from light exposure.  Interior doors should also be double airlock if possible to help with temperature and humidity control. Similarly, try to minimize the number of exterior doors, I know that with fire codes there have to be a certain number of exits, but try to keep these minimal as they pose a security risk of people being able to come and go without detection.

    Also something to consider is the materials used in the building.  Certain materials can off-gas and/or deteriorate and release harmful chemicals into the environment and can be toxic to people and artifacts.  Polyurethane paints and varnishes, oil-based paints, acid-curing silicone sealants and adhesives, vinyl, any material containing formaldehyde (i.e. particle board), cellulose nitrate adhesives and lacquers, materials that contain sulfur, and unstable chlorine polymers like PVC are all materials that should be avoided whenever possible during new construction or remodels.  

    Lastly, it’s good to think about public versus non-public spaces that you will want in your facility.  Public spaces include areas like the lobby, exhibit areas, research/reading room, meeting rooms, auditorium, bathrooms, etc.  Non-public spaces would be things like staff offices and kitchen, conference room, server and mechanical rooms, and collections storage.  Exhibit space is usually best if situated immediately off the lobby area. An aspect to consider here is having built-in display cases or if it will be better bringing in freestanding cases.  If your facility will be hanging framed pieces regularly, installing a picture rail or other hanging system may make this easier and minimize damage to walls otherwise.

    So, there it is!  I also came up with a rough (very rough) layout of a vision I had for the space.  Again, I am not an architect or engineer and I’m sure my rendering is laughable, but I mainly wanted to get some quick ideas on paper to try and help get the ball rolling.  The space that is proposed for this museum is small and the initial content that is to be housed here is also small, so that’s how I came up with a one-story, 10,000 square foot building that I hope would be able to condense a lot of history and artifacts into that space and have a big impact on visitors.  


Wilsted, Thomas.  Planning New and Remodeled Archival Facilities.  Society of American Archivists, 2008.