by Mychal Ludwig, Head Editor, INALJ New Mexico
Home Collection Conservation Practices and Tips
Whether a children’s librarian, an academic library systems administrator, or a special collections archivist, everyone has physical items and collections that they’d like to protect and preserve at home. As someone with both training in conservation techniques and the proud owner of various personal collections of books, comic books, and other ephemera, I’d like to offer some very basic tips for starting a process of home conservation of materials.
Know Your Environment, Know Your Materials
This seems obvious, but just about everything concerning material conservation relates to the environment that your materials are stored in, and are affected by. As well, varying material types are affected by these environmental variables differently. For example, I live in the American Southwest, in a region that has both extreme cold and extreme heat during the year. Monitoring and understand how temperature can affect my collections is more pressing than if I was living in a moderate coastal environment. Fortunately for my collections, my home has relatively effective climate controls so all I really need to do is make sure the temperature inside stays where I want it relative to the materials I’m trying to conserve.
The variables in the environment that a collector should consider include:
Most materials, including paper books and comic books, photographs, CDS, or toys, generally enjoy colder temperatures than the typical human. Thus, striking a balance between comfort and conservation is necessary. Unless you own a collection of nitrate film, or a mildew-y, but rare, book collection, you’re likely to be fine. While room temperature, 20 degrees Celsius or 72 degrees Fahrenheit, is considered optimal for human habitation, your collections are better off 10-20 degrees cooler. If your home has climate control variability between rooms, then keeping your collections in a room with cooler temperatures that you don’t have to be in all the time is a good conservation decision. Sweaters are also good choices. Again, it’s all about balance, and priorities; make decisions that best fit your comfort and collections. If you don’t have AC or any sort of climate controls, but are in a generally moderate climate, you would do well to figure out the areas in your home that have more consistent temperatures, away from windows and outside walls, that tend to fluctuate with outside temperatures changes.
Wind and pollutants are paired because I am referring to air-born pollutants such as the dust, dirt, and pollen that brought into homes on the breeze, or through an AC/Heating duct. Besides just getting your things dirty, these pollutants can actually lead the to increased deterioration of your collections depending on their particular chemical makeup. Again, as with temperature, this is all about balance. If you know that you really enjoy a late evening breeze in a particular room, then covering your collections or storing them in another room might be a good idea. In the American Southwest, an area of high winds and little water and few trees, leaving an open window or door inevitably leads to an incredible amount of dust entering the home. It is so dusty that even the AC/Heating ducts bring in a large amount of dust from the outside. In this case, making sure that the dust filters are cleaned and replaced properly is crucial to keeping materials clean. While helpful, air-filters such as ionic filters, are not effective enough to replace being mindful of open windows and dusty ducts.
By water, I mean rain, flooding, and plumbing. There is no trick here; it is best to keep collections out of basements, and ground floors, if possible. The second story of a building is much safer if your area is prone to flooding. Obviously, if you have no other choice, then this consideration is moot. Also be mindful of the plumbing in your home. Clearly areas with walls adjacent to plumbing (generally near bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms) should be monitored for signs of water leakage. In addition, windows and doors with inadequate seals are also areas where water can come into your house and into contact with your collection materials.
Water in another form. High humidity can affect materials significantly, causing mold and mildew to form on your collections, especially paper materials. On the other hand, too little humidity can cause materials to become brittle and unusable. Keeping humidity near 35% is a generally good level for a variety of materials. Good air circulation can keep room from becoming too humid, and conversely, a humidifier can be used if you live in an extremely arid region. This is one of the more difficult environmental variables to control in a home collection situation. Some people enjoy humidity near 70%, much higher than is safe for a paper collection. Once again it all comes down to comfort, balance, and priorities.
Light is the bane of conservation. Collections of film should be stored or looked at away from windows or in a windowless room if possible. Open windows allowing light onto a bookshelf will inevitably sun bleach exposed dust jackets and pages. Effective blinds and shades will generally do the trick. If you must have materials stored or presented on shelves, out of storage, in a room with a window that you enjoy open, having the shelves facing away from the window will prevent the light from affecting your materials. Light is also related to heat. Keeping windows open on hot, sunny days will affect a room’s temperature, so be sure to monitor any drastic temperature changes.
Collections Handling and Storage
Common sense comes in here. Make sure to wash and dry your hands when handling materials that you are attempting to preserve for the long term. Gloves are fine as well, but make sure they are new or clean with each use; otherwise they are only transferring dirt and oils to your materials. Use/examine/display your materials on clean surfaces, free of dust and clutter. Eating or drinking near where materials are presented and/or stored is not the best idea; coffee has a way of finding a path onto precious materials. If the location of materials display and storage are different, try to store materials in acid free boxes, in areas that comply with all of the above environmental tips.
Overall, the conservation of home collections, whether they are precious materials for display, or materials that see use, is a game of balance, priority, and comfort. The collector needs to decide when comfort outweighs preservation, and vice versa. Treat your materials similarly to how you treat yourself: with respect. Like yourself, you want to keep materials clean and comfortable, and they’ll likely live a longer and happier life.
(If there are glaring errors in my suggestions or any other helpful tips for home collection conservation, please, please, please comment; my goal is to help, not give erroneous advice. Thank you.)