Collecting First Editions: Storage

Storage is perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to collecting first editions. Proper storage slows the natural deterioration of paper and print over time, and minimizes damages from the elements. Here, I'll talk about a few measures I take. They are by no mean authoritative, so take them for what they are worth.

The first and simplest thing to do is to keep a book out of sunlight or florescent light. Prolonged exposure to intense light damages a book in two ways. Printed materials, like the valuable dust jacket or the typeset of a book, tend to fade. This is known as sunning and it most commonly affects the spine of a dust jacket or a book. For example, see the sunned spines of The Orchard Keeper's or The Prague Orgy's dust jackets. Paper, on the other hand, tends to darkened over time under intense light, and the edges of a dust jacket are most susceptible to this darkening, which actually weakens its structure, causing it to crumble over time. This explains why the top edges of dust jackets tend to flake off with age. See, for example, Jean's Stafford's Collected Stories. The easiest way to prevent these irreversible damages is to place your books away from direct sunlight. For valuable ones, consider investing a clamshell or solander box, but that tend to be quite expensive (a ready made box costs USD 150 and above, and customized ones are more expensive). In place, any archival box works. I get normal boxes from ikea (USD 3 per box) , lined the inside with archival plastic sheets before using them for book storage.

The second thing is the combination of humidity and temperature. Ideally, books should be stored at constant temperature and relative humidity of 15-20 degree Celsius and 40-50% respectively. This is mainly to retard the process of foxing and to prevent mold or mildew growth. Foxing refers to the appearance of brown spots - due to chemical reaction, mainly oxidation of residual iron or copper in the paper - on book pages. These spots do not weaken the paper structure. See, for example, The Great Gatsby's full title page. Books with mold or mildew growth present a greater problem, as it does weaken the paper structure - and a health hazard, and should be treated by the professionals. Controlling humidity and temperature require special equipment and is expensive. A good way is to use a wine fridge that immediately provides for temperature control. High end wine fridge has an in-built humidification function that rises the relative humidity to 65% to ensure that wine corks do not dry out, so avoid it. Instead, pick a cheap one that does not come with such a function. See picture below. An alternative is a dry cabinet, usually used for the storage of photo lens. The dry cabinet controls humidity but not temperature, and is usually more expensive on a per unit storage space basis. The cheapest alternative is to store the books in a normal cabinet along with disposable dehumidifiers. I find this to work quite well (see last pic below), especially if you make it a point to air the cabinet regularly.

The third thing is dust and other micro materials. At best, they dull the top edge of books and at worst, they provide the food source for molds. Regular dusting is a simple solution, as is storing the books in boxes. To these, I add a third alternative: storing each book in a sealed ziplock bag. Note that some book sellers vehemently oppose this for fear of creating a micro climate and of the bag releasing toxic gases, but a professional conservationist who works at a national museum once told me, "if the ziplock bag is good enough to store food, it is good enough to store books".  I followed his advice and has no issue with gas or micro climate thus far. Keeping individual books in ziplock bag also prevents water and pest hazards.

The fourth thing is the dust jacket. Dust jacket holds the bulk of a book's value, and it is important to keep them in pristine condition. It goes without saying that each dust jacket should be protected by an archival protector, and the conventional thing to do is to store the dust jacket as is - folded at flaps and wrap around the book. Unfortunately, that is not the best way to store dust jackets. For one, the folds at the flaps and spine create creases that tend to weaken over time, causing the jackets to disintegrate along these stressed lines. In addition, the edges of the jackets also suffer from shelf wear. To solve these issues, I store the jackets separately from the books. Each jacket is individually wrap in an archival protector and then stored, fully laid-out as one unfolded piece of paper, in an archival slip-in folder. No folding stress, and no shelf wear to the edge. 

Finally, the conventional wisdom is to store individual book in upright position, beside books of similar sizes. Not the best advice. The construct of a book is such that the leaves are sewed together as a book block and then attached to the board at front and back using the free end papers, and to the spine using glue. Gravity takes over if a book is stored upright over a long period of time: the book block starts to dislodge itself from the board at spine top because the block's center of gravity creates a clockwise moment that induces tension force at the spine. This is known as loose spine, and is especially common amongst thick books. And it is very easy to identify: the top edge of the book block will display the symptomatic U shape and the top spine will be tender to pressing because of the cavity that has developed between the block and spine. This sagging will continue until the bottom edge of the book block touches the resting surface. See pictures below.  To circumvent this problem, the official way is to place customized cushion to support the bottom edge, but this is cumbersome and uncommon. There is a simpler way: I store (most of) my books flat. I've read that this will cause the book to develop a slanted spine, but I think that is nonsense. Slanted spine is a consequence of placing books is a slanted upright position, or of reading the book by opening it close to 180 degrees, thereby damaging the spine construct.

Books stored in boxes in a wine fridge for light, temperature and humidity control

Alternatively, keep them in a closed cabinet with disposable dehumidifier. I wrap each book in a ziplock bag, and store the book separately from the dust jacket
Classic symptom of a loose or tender spine when a book is stored upright for a long period: the U shape at the top edge of the book block

Here you can see the actual dislodgement clearly. The book block is separated from the spine at the top, creating a cavity that renders the top spine tender to pressing

Over time, the bottom edge of the block will sag to a state where it touches the resting surface, thereby acting as a new pivot point to support the weight of the block and stopping the gravity induced momentum at the expense of damaging the bottom edge
Here's how I store the dust jackets: first in an archival Brodart protector and then stored flat in an archival folio. This way, the creases are relaxed and will not disintegrate over time. Also, the shelf wear on the edges of the dust jacket is totally eliminated. The dust jacket is also protected from light damage and its color will remain fresh and vivid for a long time. Finally, it is also very convenient to admire your precious collection of the very beautiful dust jacket.

For the dust jacket storage I use the 18" by 24" Itoya Art Profolio. The size is big enough to accommodate all fully laid out dust jacket of standard book sizes. Dust jackets of Pynchon's Dixon and Mason or Larry McMurty's Lonesome Dove fit in very comfortably. This folio is made  from archival material so there is no worry of acid spillover.


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