Every once in a while, here at the Congregational Library, we come across items in our collection (or we are given items to add to our collection) which need a bit of special attention before they can go back on the shelves. Sometimes these items are books that need cleaning, or photos that need protective polyester sleeves. More often than not, however, these items are books which need some sort of enclosure, either to protect them in their fragile condition, or to keep all their pieces together.
When it comes to choosing good housing for our archival collections, we look for products or containers which enclose and yet are not air-tight, allowing instead for decent air-flow around the item. We also look for containers which are as close a fit as possible — the more secure an item is in its housing, the less likely it is to bounce around inside and become damaged. Finally, we look for containers which are made out of materials which won't, in the long-term, harm the item they are enclosing.
Taking all these requirements into account, we are generally left with a few options: envelopes, plastic jackets, and boxes. Whenever possible, we here at the library tend to favor boxes. Envelopes, when used for larger, thicker objects like books, can actually do more harm than good by putting undue pressure on the outer corners of a volume where the envelope isn't quite wide or deep enough. Plastic jackets, while perfectly fine for that new best seller you picked up at your public library the other day, can be unwieldy, and are not a very good long-term preservation option.
Boxes, on the other hand, provide full enclosure for the book, are not air-tight, and can be made out of highly stable and safe materials. Boxes also keep loose pieces together, and protect books from outside influences while also protecting the materials around it from the enclosed book's influences (this can be more of a concern than one would think).
When it comes to boxes for our books, we tend to favor two different styles. One is a poster-board four-leaf wrapper. The other is a corrugated cardboard drop-spine, clam-shell style box, shown above. Both styles are made from acid-free, lignin-free, buffered paper material (which is both stable and safe), and both can be made in-house from flat sheet goods. The type of box a book gets is determined by the book's size, weight, and condition.
Once a book has been identified for maintenance, it goes into a queue. Once there is a critical mass of items requiring attention, each book is assessed and a custom-sized enclosure is made for it. The boxes are then labeled appropriately and returned to their shelves, ready to be used!
When it comes to storing your own old, fragile, or unique items, look for a clean closely-fit (but not too small) box. Do not seal your items in plastic bags or air-tight containers. Store them in a dry place (not a basement or attic) which has a relatively stable temperature. If you wish to invest in archival-quality housing, it is possible to purchase boxes from any of the major archival material suppliers, including Hollinger MetalEdge, University Products, or Gaylord.