Storage Cases of the Past
When unpacking an historic collection at the Congregational Library, we never know exactly what we'll find. Not only are the documents themselves often fragile, beautiful, and fascinating, but so are their storage cases. They too, sometimes in intangible ways, tell us something about the material culture of a time period. It's interesting to see what's valued in a certain era — how much effort is put into wrapping, ornamental detail work, bookplates, as well as clever design and packaging. Equally interesting is the evident shift to strictly utilitarian storage containers in the 20th century.
Here are a few quick examples of historic storage containers we've received as part of new accessions to our archive. Notice anything familiar from your own collections? Included are:
- Metal boxes, one from 1877 that's painted and lacquered (complete with beautiful keys)
- Wooden lantern slide boxes
- Plastic floppy disk case
- Various kinds of cardboard and wooden cases
During the course of processing these collections and making their finding aids available on our website, we'll rehouse the documents and retire these storage containers. We do this because the majority of storage cases are not archival — meaning, at minimum, they are not acid-free and over a long period of time they become inhospitable to the items they contain. Beyond that, any wooden or late 19th- or 20th-century paper-based storage container also contains lignin**, a chemical compound found in wood that makes the items it contains yellow and brittle (think of old newspaper print) as it biodegrades. We'll also rehouse documents that come to us in plastic containers because as plastic degrades, it gives off gases and is often chemically deleterious to documents in its vicinity.
These are just a few of the easy steps you too can take with your own collections or personal papers to help them endure as long as possible. Nothing is made to last forever. While we can't stop the aging process entirely, we can help slow it down considerable by removing historic items from chemically hostile storage containers and providing more neutral enclosures for them.
** Fun fact: Lignin breakdown is also what gives old books their distinctive vanilla-like smell.