Yikes! Solving the Nasty Problem of Moldy Photographs

by Sally J.

in * How to PRESERVE Family History Treasures, Free Articles / Blog

Here in the American Midwest, we’re familiar with the problem of seasonal flooding. We love to build our houses near gorgeous bodies of water, but that means a higher risk. Back in May 2008, the Wisconsin Dells lost Lake Delton. As in: It completely emptied out. And when it did, it took trees and handful of houses along with it.


It was a man made lake, that’s true, but when it disappeared it was almost 100 years old so for most folks it had literally always been there. On the upside, it made a comeback without a single business having to close: “BETTER THAN EVER? Dells, Lake Delton bounces back nicely five years after floods”  If you’ve never visited The Wisconsin Dells you really should…especially if you have kids who like waterparks. It’s the Waterpark Capital of the World.

Anyhoo, I live about an hour’s drive from that spot, and that Spring I pumped my basement more times than I care to remember. Let’s just say I’ve thought about adding “can restart an overheated submersible pump by shocking it back to life with a big bucket of cold water” to my resume. Fortunately, we never keep anything as fragile as photographs down there. And everything that’s down there is stored on shelves and not on the ground. Phew!

Where there is moisture & warm temps

there. will. be. mold.


In fact, I hate it so much that just seeing a picture of it gives me the heebie jeebies. Mold is the enemy of every archivist. It destroys books and photographs. It is a serious health hazard, especially for people with respiratory problems. And it takes serious chemicals to kill it.


Prevention is the best cure. Mold loves a warm, moist environment. Do not give mold what it loves! Your best bet is to store materials only in climate controlled areas. That means air conditioning and a dehumidifier during warm, humid weather. Make sure your dehumidifier has a hose so the water drains continuously. Basements, attics and garages are not good locations to store items you value. Fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels are bad even without the threat of mold.

If you find mold, first of all promise me you’ll treat it like the dangerous substance it is. Don’t touch it with your bare hands, and don’t breathe it in. NOTE: People with respiratory problems should not go near mold even with a mask on.

  • Kill it. There are chemicals that will kill mold spores, but unfortunately these chemicals will also destroy your photographs, books, and papers. You’ll need to inactivate the mold with more gentle methods. But be sure to clean shelving and walls with a mold and mildew killing solution such as Lysol, Clorox, or X-14.
  • De-activate it. If you brush a spot and it smears, it’s active. If it’s powdery and dry that means it’s inactive. Freezing, air drying, and exposure to UV light are all methods that will inactivate mold. But light can also cause fading, so don’t leave materials in direct light for more than an hour.
  • Get rid of it. Once it’s inactive you need to either vacuum it up or wipe it off. Do not vacuum indoors unless you have a HEPA filter (otherwise you will just spread the spores to other materials inside). If you use cloth rags to wipe off the mold, change them often and be sure to wash them in hot water and bleach after use.

Inactive mold spores will re-bloom as soon as conditions are warm and moist enough.

  • Isolate it. As an extra precaution, items that have been infected with mold should be isolated from the rest of your collection. Isolation is a good idea because the spores will literally infect other items. Put them in their own special box (or boxes if we’re talking about a large outbreak).
  • Scan it and dispose of the original. If isolation is too expensive for your budget, make a high resolution scan and create a new print. Do not attempt this if the mold is still active, or if there are inactive spores present. You don’t want to spread the spores to your scanner!


Want more info?
Here’s a detailed article about mold, with a fabulous title: Invasion of the Giant Mold Spore!


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Editor B, some rights reserved.

Original photo caption from flickr: “This picture from Xy’s 30th birthday party is a little worse for the wear after bobbing around in floodwaters for a couple weeks. Actually the damage gives it some interesting character, but I’m worried the photograph will be slowly consumed by mold.

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