Book Preservation Essentials

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Tucked away in attics, basements, barns and storage units are countless bound volumes of prized ephemera. School texts, journals and diaries, long out of print books and antiquated family bibles, filled with the now-defunct practice of documenting genealogy and family history are retained, out of sight but not out of mind. Rarely are these family heirlooms pulled out of storage, but those who own them take comfort in knowing that they are there. Sadly, these books are typically not cared for as well as they deserve. Storage conditions and materials need to be carefully considered to do them justice. It doesn’t take a museum curator to accomplish this. With a bit of planning and forethought anyone can make significant upgrades to how their prized books are stored.

The first consideration is storage climate. In a museum or library, there is usually some degree of climate control, where temperature and humidity can be tailored to specific needs. Very few of us have such an arrangement in our homes but we can improve storage climate nevertheless. The simplest step is to get books and ephemera out of barns, garages and unheated storage units and bring them indoors. This immediately gives some degree of climate control. Cool and dry is always a good choice. Basements can meet these criteria provided they are not prone to water infiltration and pest infestation can be guarded against. Well-ventilated attics can also work but they tend to get excessively warm in the summer and very cold in the winter. Usually, however, the best choice is one of the main living floors. A closet is the go-to option because it affords a secure location with minimal sunlight. For preservation’s sake, pick the closet with the most consistent storage temperature and humidity level.

Another important consideration is storage container. Cardboard boxes are commonly used though they are arguably the worst storage medium. Standard cardboard contains lots of nasty compounds that break down over time and corrode paper. Plastic tote bins are generally better, but even these will eventually off-gas chemicals that will likewise cause damage. A much better option is archival quality paperboard boxes available from supply companies like Hollinger Metal Edge or Gaylord Archival. These boxes are durable, acid-free and well-designed. They also look professional and probably unlike any other storage boxes one is likely to own. This makes it simple to identify what box contains those fragile, sentimental and important written works. For further protection for delicate items, archival quality foam, adhesives and cardstock can be purchased from the aforementioned vendors. A utility or hobby knife can be used to custom cut foam supports to prevent movement while the box is handled.A final point to consider is how books and ephemera are packed in a box. These items should be laid flat if at all possible. This orients the pull of gravity in the most stable direction. When stacked on end paper tends to sag, crumple or fold, putting extra stress on it. Book bindings are especially vulnerable to such stress.

There will always be the possibility of calamity, even under ideal storage conditions. Unforeseeable water leaks, fires, insect infestation can destroy in an instant. Creating an electronic copy is a good insurance policy. It certainly can’t replace the original article, but at least the content can be saved.

For those interesting in taking preservation of their archival material further, consult the National Park Service Conserve O Gram series. These leaflets are intended for museum staff but the information can be applied in a home setting. Not everything will be practical (few of us can afford to install a full climate control system in a specific room, let alone an entire building) but it offers reasonable guidelines and basic practices for care and storage of paper materials and non-paper objects.

A small investment in time and small expenditure of money is all it takes to make significant upgrades to book storage. These modest improvements go a long way to ensure that your valuable texts last over the decades, or even centuries.

-Nathan George

Northshire Manchester Store

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