Wednesday, January 28, 2015

To our friend, Maurice

For the past couple months, we had a live-in visitor at the Book Conservation lab.  He appeared unexpectedly one day as Eliza was preparing some leather for a label.  He didn’t say much (or do much, really) but he did seem keenly interested in eating. We called him Maurice.  Trying to be good hosts, we gave him a jar to live in and some scraps of leather to munch on, and even praised him when he shed his skin as he progressed through his larval state.

Allow me to introduce Maurice the furniture carpet beetle...

Larva and adult furniture carpet beetles, Anthrenus flavipes.
Photo by Dong-Hwan Choe.
 Yes, I know it is strange that the Lab played host to a well-known pest—one that is named for its predilection for eating antiques.   Perhaps, if you are squeamish about insects, you are wondering why we didn’t dispose of him immediately upon finding him.  But Maurice is a good reminder of something every conservator has to consider at some point in their career—how to handle insects that can potentially cause extensive damage to the organic material of our cultural heritage? 
Thankfully, those who have come before us have developed a good system for handling visitors like Maurice: Integrated Pest Management, also known as IPM.

IPM is a method used by museums and libraries across the country in order to aid in the control and prevention of pest-related damage in paper-based collections.  The reason that this is so important is that insects are often attracted to adhesives and starches found in the components of libraries and archives, and will occasionally attack the paper itself.  This leads to the loss of structural components, and in some cases, to extensive damage to precious information

insect damage, the Carter Library, Photo by Quinn Ferris
The images to the right and below, illustrate the level of damage that can be caused by the occasional pest.  In the case of these volumes, before UVa acquired them, they lived in a plantation manor where they were susceptible to all manner of insect attack.  In the image on the right, we can see that insects devoured all of the paper off of the spines (paper that was full of appealing adhesive, not doubt) but left the title labels which were, for whatever reason, clearly not as delicious. 

insect damage, the Carter Library; photo by Quinn Ferris

However, it is obvious that the little critters are not too picky—in the picture on the left, several different types of material, both cloth and paper, have been damaged by pest activity.  Thankfully the closely monitored and controlled environment of the stacks at the Small Special Collection ensures that these books will not suffer further degradation.
A main facet of IPM is to prevent most effectively without causing harm to the collections themselves or their stewards—therefore no pesticides are used.  IPM has five main components in its implementation: Inspection and Monitoring, Identification of Pests, Climate and Habitat Modification and Treatment and Prevention.

Because Maurice was the only of his kind found in the lab, we concluded that he was probably accidentally brought in as a tiny larva attached to a human, or he rolled in through the door one day (furniture carpet beetles do live "in the wild"), hard to say really but he was not symptomatic of an overall pest infestation at UVa.  Thank Goodness!  But having Maurice on hand allowed us to identify him—the most important step in determining whether a pest is a serious risk and how to manage it— and monitor him for a few weeks just to see what would happen if he had a steady snacking supply.

So, what did happen?  Not much.  Maurice followed the football season and rooted passionately for the Hoos.  Eventually, he did metamorphose out of his exoskeleton into a slightly larger and hairier version of himself.  But, lacking a community of other furniture carpet beetles, or water, he mostly just hung out and monitored the goings on in the lab until we found him legs up one morning in his jar.

For more information on Integrated Pest Management in Libraries and Museums, you can browse the following links:

-Quinn Morgan Ferris