The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 22, Number 5


Heritage Eaters: Insects and Fungi in Heritage Collections, by Mary-Lou Florian. ISBN 1-873936-49-4. 1997. 150 pages. $40 from James & James (Science Publishers) Ltd., 35-37 William Road, London NW1 3ER, UK (44 171/387-8558, fax 44 171/387-8998, e-mail Distributed in the U.S. and Canada by American Book Center, Inc., Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bldg. #3, Brooklyn, NY 11205 (718/834-0170 or 800/556-9419, fax 718/935-9647).

Reviewed by Rossana Rotili and Paola Valenti
Instituto Centrale per la Patalogia del Libro

While not a biological treatise, the book provides a competent and thorough overview of the problems of a biological nature that those responsible for the conservation of heritage items are very often called upon to tackle. The author's goal, namely to furnish all the information required to solve such problems without causing harm to the environment, human beings or the items to be preserved, appears to have been fully accomplished. In her view, and indeed our own, if this objective is to be achieved, it is necessary above all to have a general knowledge of the materials which constitute heritage items, the environmental conditions in which they are kept, the morphological and physiological characteristics of the insects and micro-organisms that are responsible for damaging them, and the extent of the infection or infestation under way. In this context, the author focuses primarily on the biological aspect of the question, illustrating some elements of systematics for both insects and micro-organisms, together with their life-cycles and the morphological and physiological characteristics that are most significant for the purposes of pest identification, and the definition of systems to combat and eliminate the biological agents most commonly involved in damaging heritage items.

The book is organized as a series of self-contained chapters, each of which addresses a specific topic and comes complete with an extensive bibliography at the end.

Attention should be drawn to the chapter on environmental factors that prove conducive to biological damage. The exhaustive overview provided examines such aspects as relative humidity, the action of water, the relations between substrate, free water and bound water, the movement of water vapor within materials, the physical and chemical dynamics of temperature, gas, pH and light that influence and affect the microbial metabolism, and the effect of dust on the development of insects and fungi.

Considerable interest also attaches to the chapter illustrating a project to handle and control infestation carried out at the Royal British Columbia Museum within the framework of the IIPC (Integrated Insect Pest Control) programme. In accordance with the specifications laid down by the IIPC programme, the project involved a range of different professional figures (conservation personnel, personnel responsible for the maintenance of collections, building engineers, entomologists, etc.) Parameters were established for application in the various areas of the museum with a view to ascertaining and quantifying the presence and extent of infestation through systematic checks and close monitoring of the phenomena identified. It also proved possible to draw up a prevention programme to avoid further infestation in the future.

Another highly topical issue is dealt with in chapters 12 and 19, which are devoted to methods of disinfestation and disinfection.

In the case of disinfestation, the author illustrates all the existing methods used for the elimination of insect species that infest heritage collections, providing a minute description of the mechanisms involved and an overview of studies carried out in this field at the international level. In this connection, attention may be drawn to the most recently tested method based on the use of atmospheres modified by the addition of various gases, such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen or argon, and almost totally stripped of oxygen, the concentration of which is reduced to as little as 0.1%. With this system, the insects present inside items placed in special containers saturated with the gas selected die of anoxia no matter what biological stage they may be in at the time. The only question mark hanging over this method regards the as yet undetermined possibility of interaction between the gases used and the material of the items treated. Further tests are therefore required.

In the case of micro-organisms, Mary-Lou Florian again illustrates all the methods of disinfection adopted hitherto, pointing out their positive and negative effects. As a potential new approach to this problem, she considers the use of atmospheres modified as above but suitably adapted to these types of organisms, which produce quiescent life forms, i.e. spores, that are extremely resistant to any form of external action.

The specific context delineated by the author is, of course, completed by an examination of methods for the preservation of biological deterioration and the measures to be taken in the event of natural catastrophes, past or future.

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