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Foreign Correspondent—Protective Enclosures

Your foreign correspondent in the field just got more foreign: for the next three weeks I’ll be an intern at the National Archives of the Netherlands in the Hague, working on a collection of early 17th century atlases from the VOC (Dutch East India Company). I’m usually pretty good at working on books without getting distracted looking at them, but I’m no match for these things. Come to SAI next July & I’ll show you photos.

Down to business. When I was at WSW this summer I did a little resizing of some of the boxes in the archives, and my first day at the Archives my supervisor was doing the exact same thing here. Budgets being tight everywhere, boxing becomes perhaps more feasible than treatment, and definitely an aspect of important preventative conservation. A badly-fitting box can cause just as much damage as no box at all, as can an inappropriate sort of enclosure. I know you’re not all working in libraries and museums but presumably you’re all making books and prints and stuff, eh? You’d be well to know how to take care of them.


So. Skip it if you know it already (or chime in if I missed something), but what follows will be a discussion of the various sorts of enclosures you might make, and eventually, instructions on how to make them. I should point out here that all of these boxes are made to exactly the size of the book. The box should be large enough that you can put in the book without scraping the edges or straining the walls of the box, and small enough that when the box is closed and shaken the book does not move around at all. Picture that movement every time someone pulls it down from the shelf, walks it across a room, and puts it on a table, then multiply it by twenty or thirty years and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway it’s a waste of shelf space for it to be too large. I make a stink about this because I think there’s a tendency, especially with objects whose dimensions are difficult to get because they’re not perfectly square, to make the box a little large “just to be safe.” It’s not safe!


Starting with the most robust, I give you the drop spine box, also called the clamshell box, also called the drop back box (more so in England, I think), also called the Solander case (after a Swedish guy at the British Museum who first made it). I prefer “drop spine box” so I hope you do too.


This box is constructed from binder’s board then covered in book cloth or leather and lined on the inside with paper. The inner “tray” holds the book/object, the outer tray holds the inner, and a case like that of a book connects the two together. There are loads of variations on the structure and construction that we can talk about later, but in the most simple version done the way I prefer to do it, the trays are each constructed separately then attached at the end. You can also make separate sections to house different objects (this one has space for three, one on each shelf; notice the bottom and middle shelf are made smaller by these cloth-covered compartments).

Advantages? Sturdy without causing a microclimate because even cloth-covered board will breathe somewhat. The thick board does, however, reduce fluctuation in relative humidity, too much of which can cause damage to paper, parchment, and leather. The paper shelf lining creates a less abrasive surface than cloth to slide the book on as it goes in and out of the box. The three walls mean the fourth side of the book is available for grabbing. The all-in-one-piece design means you don’t lose the other half somewhere. The absorbant materials can actually protect the book even from some amount of water damage, as the board and cloth will wick up moisture before it gets to the book.

Disadvantages? Construction time—this will be your most time-consuming box to make. Shelf space—because, think about it, between the two trays and the two sides of the case, you’re adding four board thicknesses plus a little cloth around every book you box. If you have just a few, no problem, but in libraries with tight shelf space these boxes sometimes aren’t possible just for that reason. Very large boxes of this type are heavy. Very thin boxes are difficult (not impossible) to pull off. Materials for this box are also probably the most expensive compared to the other options.

The same sort of thing can be manufactured from corrugated board (or purchased to spec from somewhere like CMi); if you’ve ever seen the archives at WSW, this is what we’re talking about. Offers some of the same features as the drop spine box, but trades a lot of the sturdiness for speed and savings in weight and cost. There is also a limit to how skinny corrugated boxes can be made; the walls will not stay upright once they’re below about an inch or so.


Four-flaps (also called phase boxes, but so are some other things) consist of two perpendicular strips of card, attached in the center panel, and with panels on each side that fold over to cover the book:


I tend to make them with a tab on the outer flap that locks into the penultimate flap. You could also make a more robust version out of thicker board (but for that sometimes you need a tool to help make the score lines) and attach ties or a string and one of those circle things like on the back of a manilla envelope. These instructions from Indiana are just so genius and thorough that I have no desire to add to them. If you prefer something that makes you scratch your head, give this one a go.

Advantages: even quicker, even cheaper, even thinner!
Disadvantages: even less sturdy!

One way to mitigate the sturdiness problem is to combine the card four-flap with a normal case like you’d make for a book. Connect two boards with a strip of cloth as if you were making a quarter binding, then line the inside of the spine area with another strip, and attach the four-flap to the inside of the right panel.

There’s one more I want to mention, a quick-and-dirty style that the Archives here uses. I’ll see if they’ll let me take some photos and put it online.

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