Recently I had the opportunity to attend a short but very interesting talk in Timaru on foxing by Neil Andrews from the Biological Sciences at the Canterbury University, whose specialist area is Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM). Neil uses the SEM to look at the surface of things, easily including samples as small as 3 microns like the spores he used to illustrate his talk.
Having never looked into foxing before Neil’s interest was piqued when his brother, a local philatelist, brought foxed stamps to his attention. The talk began with a look at the microscopic construction of stamps, views of the differences of rag and wood-pulp fibres. But the fascinating part for me was yet to come. As a result of his initial interest Neil looked more closely at several samples of foxing, including samples from within his own personal library – probably little different from many other library collections including our own. His initial research led him to understand there were two types of foxing – ferric oxide or rusting and fungal growth. Of the samples he viewed he found only fungal growth.
When looking at his foxing sample he discovered dead fungal matter with broken hyphae (the long tubular bits), what appeared to be broken growth nodes and few fruiting bodies (i.e. the bits with the nasty spores). Here comes the fascinating bit – he then checked a control area, a piece of clean page without any evidence of foxing. The surface was covered in strands of live hyphae with active fruiting bodies covering a surface ‘like a forest’ – see the adjacent image for one of the less spectacular examples he displayed. As a result Neil’s instinctive conclusion was that foxing was actually caused by dead fungi, not live growths. He does caution though that it certainly needs more work and that he would like to plate out some of the infected pages, put some names to the fungi and verify the infection viability.
Neil also discussed how fungi are everywhere – i.e. don’t kid yourself you’re not surrounded by the stuff. I don’t want to dwell on examples, but he has even found it in aviation fuel – so its almost assured its endemic in all our paper stuff. Just think of that lovely (some heathens say slightly musty) smell that greets us every time we enter our stores or open those old books. After all, we all know storage environments – which theoretically are around 19 degrees and 50% RH in our archives – are not going to stop decay, just slow it down. It won’t be so dry as to kill the fungi, but hopefully is enough to arrest its development. Neil’s talk reminded me though that recently we’ve had issues in our archives store with the humidity dropping lower than desirable – was I risking killing the fungi and causing an outbreak of foxing? Probably not (it didn’t get that low), but Neil’s talk did give me something of a start.
Neil expects to repeat his talk to Christchurch philatelist, but the details are yet to be confirmed.
Images supplied by Neil Andrews, Canterbury University.
Curator of Documentary History
South Canterbury Museum
Timaru District Council