The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 5
Feb 2002

Irradiation of Library & Archives Materials Meeting: A Summary

On January 28, 2002, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries hosted a meeting with representatives from the US Postal Service, Titan Corporation, CLIR, and several federal libraries in the Washington, DC area. What follows is a list of the participants and a summary of the discussion.


Pete Allen, Sales Team Leader, U.S. Postal Service
Thomas Edwards, Manager of Government Relations, U.S. Postal Service
Susan Frampton, Head, Preservation and Exhibition Services Department, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Eliza Gilligan, Conservator, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Doris Hamburg, Head of Preservation, National Archives & Records Administration
Kaylyn Hipps, Association of Research Libraries
Darren McKnight, Chief Technology Officer, Mail Safe-Titan Corporation
Robert Mohrman, Acting Chief, Library, Walter Reed Army Medical Center
Andrew Robb, Senior Photo Conservator, Library of Congress
Lu Rossignol, Head, Acquisition Services, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Irene Schubert, Chief, Preservation Reformatting Division, Library of Congress
Abby Smith, Director of Programs, Council on Library and Information Resources
Laurie Stackpole, Chief Librarian, Naval Research Library
Sarah Stauderman, Preservation Manager, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Susan Tarr, Executive Director, Federal Library and Information Center Committee
Charles Tumosa, Senior Research Chemist, Smithsonian Center for Research and Materials Education
Dianne van der Reyden, Senior Paper Conservator, Smithsonian Center for Research and Materials Education
Savannah Schroll, Public Information Officer, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Recorder

Agenda: to gather information about the irradiation process and U.S. Postal Service plans regarding government mail, so that affected federal libraries and archives can react and plan accordingly. Provide a forum to express concerns over the current and long-term effects of irradiation of collection materials.

U.S. Postal Service

Thomas Edwards and Pete Allen

The Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Homeland Security were the overnment entities that determined if the mail is to be treated for bio-hazards. The most effective point is when it is processed by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). These same Offices also chose irradiation as the most effective method for neutralizing those bio-hazards.

At this time, all mail directed to the White House, Congress and the Library of Congress (as part of the Capitol complex) is being irradiated.

For zip codes beginning with 202-205, all first class mail and flats are being irradiated. At present, parcels, boxes and packages are not being irradiated. However, new technology using an x-ray irradiation process has been developed and will soon be implemented for these larger items.

The USPS realizes that irradiating all mail is not the optimal solution, but until they can put a more balanced system in place, they will continue with the current program for treating the mail. They are working with industry and the Department of Defense to develop new methods of detection and sanitization.

Mail Safe - Titan Corporation

Darren McKnight

Irradiation dosage levels are set by the USPS, as the client, in consultation with the Department of Defense. They determined what would kill the most virulent known strain of anthrax and then increased that dosage by several orders of magnitude. When this process began, there was very little information available on what it would take to neutralize anthrax. The USPS went with a high dose as a precaution, and will evaluate the possibility of a lower dosage as more research is completed.

When the irradiation system was implemented, there was a tremendous amount of mail to be bundled and processed, with "maximum throughput" of backlogged material as the goal. Large bundles of mail were processed and received a higher irradiation dose. Bundles of mail, gathered by hand, were not uniform in size and therefore, neither were the irradiation dosages received. Since the initial phase of the project, bundle size has been standardized: 2" - 3" bundles are put into 5 " letter trays and circulated on a conveyor belt. The bundles travel past the electron beam twice, and are exposed on both sides.

The actual dosage received by materials depends on how thick the bundles or packages are, how slowly they pass on the conveyor belt under the electron beam or x-ray machine, whether they are irradiated twice or exposed on both sides, and human error.

Side effects of the irradiation process include:

The amount of heat produced. As the dosage increases, so does the temperature. The current dosages are producing temperatures up to 130° Celsius. These temperatures desiccate paper and cause most of the apparent damage to the mail.

The potential for the creation of carbon monoxide and ozone gases as chemical reactions take place within the irradiated materials. This side effect can be particularly serious for materials inside plastic shipping bags.

Open Forum:

High temperatures produced during the irradiation process cause the "visible" damage. Lowering the dosage will lower the heat of the process, but not eliminate it altogether.

More significantly, in addition to the damage caused by heat, is the unseen damage caused by the irradiation. The irradiation process imparts a tremendous amount of energy to the items being irradiated. This energy, while neutralizing bio-hazards, also acts as a catalyst for chemical reactions, causing accelerated deterioration of paper and other materials.

Action steps proposed at the meeting included:

If possible, use a post office box outside of the affected zip code areas.

Qualify and quantify the damage seen within your library or archive, to support the concept that collection material is at risk.

Determine the percentage of your collection that is at risk—both visible and inherent—from irradiation, and the costs associated with that risk.

Contact the Homeland Security Office, USPS (and hopefully the White House, who is setting policy concerning irradiation of mail), outlining the consequences of loss of collection materials and the costs associated with the replacement, staff time, resources, legal stewardship, lawsuits, etc.

Collect samples of expendable material to send to Titan for testing, to determine effects of future procedures.

Participants agreed to form a small working group to gather information on current and expected damage and related costs. Members to include: Susan Frampton, Doris Hamburg, Andrew Robb, Irene Schubert and Abby Smith. Susan Frampton agreed to collect samples from participants for testing by Titan. Susan Tarr agreed to serve as a conduit to gather information from and distribute information to the broader federal library community.

Reprinted from a notice posted on the PADG list by Eliza Gilligan. Ms. Gilligan is a book conservator at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. She can be reached at:

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