State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 45 Autumn 1990


A Case for Everything? Boxes and Enclosures for Library Materials

Optimum protection for library materials might be achieved by adapting an old adage: A place for everything and everything in a case. This is not practical for the bulk of a collection but is appropriate for items with either sensitive or unusual formats. Volumes bound in vellum or with parchment leaves are vulnerable to fluctuating environmental conditions; adverse effects may be moderated by suitable storage containers. Fine bindings are
protected when housed within well-made boxes. Loose collections of pictorial or manuscript material, whether mounted or otherwise, are best stored within a limited range of standard size boxes. Three-dimensional objects, fragile items and book covers with brass corners, bosses, clasps or other protrusions are less hazardous to themselves or adjacent items inside padded or custom-fitted containers.

Some styles to consider:

The slipcase (Figure 1a) is probably the most common type of protective container for books. They are relatively economical to make, both in time and materials and may help control the shape of the book. Drawbacks are potential harm caused when contents are removed or replaced and little protection for the spine from dust or light. To overcome these problems the book may be given a chemise (Figure 1b) which translates literally from the French as “shirt”. French bookbinders, in particular often provide this extra level of protection for fine bindings. Thin board or card is generally used, covered with the same materials as the book, though less elaborately. This is modelled around the volume with the front edges made to fit firmly over the board edges of the book. The cover design of fine bindings need not incorporate title lettering as only the spine area of the chemise will be visible within the slipcase and it can be blocked.
There may be situations where it is not desirable to completely enclose a volume. In many of the houses administered by the National Trust in Great Britain leather bound books are an integral part of the furnishings of a gentleman's library. The books are generally behind glass doors and seldom handled but may have broken down structurally with boards either loose or detached. Cost of rebinding or repair is prohibitive and tying up with cotton tape, even if dyed to be camouflaged, is unappealing.
An open-topped slip case known as a shoe (Figure 2) was devised by Nicholas Pickwoad, consultant to the National Trust, (in consultation with Christopher Clarkson, then at the Bodleian Library), to address this problem. Made of thin acid-free card overlapped at the base with text-block support where necessary, it provides sufficient but unobtrusive support within a properly shelved row of books.
The open top and pliable sides minimise abrasion during removal and replacement and glass doors reduce dust problems.
Staff in the Preservation Services of the National Library of Australia adopted a slighty different approach for the Ferguson Collection of some 5,000 pre-1900 books. Rejecting the phase box (Figure 3) because of its unattractive appearance and dropback or clamshell styles due to cost and skills required to construct, they have developed a simplified slipcase which they have named the Ferguson. This omits the back for ease and speed of construction, is slighty deeper than the book to protect spine and foredge and has a ribbon pull. A thin polyester dust jacket for the book offers protection from abrasion and holds loose elements together.
The phased box or to use its full name Phased Preservation Box is a relatively recent innovation of the Library of Congress, Washington. It was intended to provide immediate physical protection for seldom-used books in poor condition, the first phase in a long-range preservation program. It is a simple design of either one or two board construction individually tailored for the contents.
As a snug-fitting box it was intended to accomplish four objectives:
Hold each volume and any detached pieces together.
Prevent further distortion of hygroscopic materials.
Prevent further mechanical damage.
Provide survey data on which to base future conservation plans.
This style seemed the solution to many librarians headaches and has sometimes been adopted indiscriminately but as the Library of Congress Preservation Office point out … “phased boxes, being somewhat awkward to open and close, are not suitable for frequently used collections and are designed for valuable book collections which need stabilizing but are not handled very often.”1
After meeting the four objectives, other benefits of the phased box include the speed and ease of construction which can be readily learnt by even moderately skilled persons, minimal equipment and tools required and the relatively small amount of adhesive used. The positioning of ties and buttons should take into consideration that they do not snag on adjacent items.
After experimenting with velcro and cotton tapes a number of year ago, I adapted a commercially available stationery item: Ty-Tite File Fasteners. The two components are rivetted to the outer board and have proved very successful. Other institutions have gone in for clear plastic washers and ties.
It can be argued that the appearance of large numbers of phased boxes in a collection can be visually off-putting but as they are mainly restricted to closed stacks this aspect is negligible. Indications they provide of the extent of further treatment required can be useful.
At the State Library of Victoria we adopted multi-use board for simple box-making. This acid-free light blue-to-grey corrugated board can be easily creased and cut to size, is lightweight but sturdy. It is bulkier than some other box boards but is readily available and suits our needs.
The Australian Archives Standard Document Box (Figure 4) is forme-cut from multi-use board and supplied in flat sheets to be assembled as required. Tabs and slots eliminate the need for adhesive in its construction. An almost unlimited range of designs, some with commercial applications such as book mailers, have been developed with corrugated and other boards. These may be surface coated for weather protection, printed or embossed for identification. Large production runs are necessary for them to be economically viable.
Serials or pamphlet (Figure 5) boxes are available from Library suppliers in a variety of styles, perferably with some sort of lid for dust protection. They are intended as short-term holding devices with the contents periodically collated and bound. An obvious problem of the loose issues sagging and distorting has found a solution in a simple device by Tony Clarke of the National Library of New Zealand, using the “spring” property of corrugated board folded into a concertina format.
“Top of the range” in boxes for Library materials is a style that has been proven for efficiency and durability by over two hundred years application, initially at the British Museum. Dr. Solander was associated with that institution from 1773 to 1782 and to quote from the Dictionary of National Biography: “A useful form of book portolio box designed by him is still known as a Solander case.” (Figure 6)
The earliest examples are tributes to the cabinet maker and leather worker and/or bookbinder. Frames and sides were of timber with dove-tailed corners glued and screwed, covered in morocco and fitted with spring catches. Obviously considerable skill was required to produce them which might seem extravagant for anything other than the most valued items.
It is interesting to note the development of Solander cases was coincidental with Sir Joseph Banks’ expeditions to Australia and environs, and drawings of his botanical and animal discoveries, notably by Sydney Parkinson and other artists have been well preserved to this day.
The important features of the drop-back spine and close fit have been retained in a number of simplified versions that have appeared since. Plywood and millboard have been substituted for construction with buckram covering. Step-jointed corners or boards scored and bent to form the walls result in a strong foundation before covering. A style that involves making a top and base to be glued into a case as in bookbinding is relatively straight forward. (Figure 7)
Thomas Harrison in his very useful pamphlet Fragments of Bookbinding Technique notes that “each individual craftsman has his own pet method” and for a smooth and refined finish a method developed by Bill Topping, Lecturer in Conservation at the Camberwell School of Art and Crafts (London Institute) has much to recommend it. By clever and careful measuring and cutting it is possible to achieve an apparently seamless covering from a single piece of cloth.
To make any but the simplest container requires detailed instruction beyond the scope of this basic guide but it should be stressed that whatever style is chosen material used in box-making should be durable and of proven archival quality.

Other References

  • Eric Burdett, The Craft of Bookbinding. A Practical Handbook (London, David and Charles, 1975).

  • Demonstration Talk on Boxmaking by Bill Topping, Society of Bookbinders and Book Restorers Newsletter, (London and South Region, April 1988), Issue 23, pp 8–11.

  • Arthur W. Johnson The Thames and Hudson Manual of Bookbinding (London, Thames and Hudson, 1978).

David G. Harris


Boxes for the protection of rare books: Their design and construction.’ Compiled and illustrated by Margaret R. Brown with the assistance of Don Etherington and Linda K. Ogden (Washington, Library of Congress, 1982).