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If you are looking for ways to safely keep your books in storage, you might have determined that plastic bags could keep your books dry by protecting them from plumbing leaks, high humidity, flooding and other dampness problems. Archivists and book restorers tell us that plastic bag storage may cause more problems than it solves.
Placing your books in plastic bags is not a recommended way of keeping your book collection in its best condition. Plastic bags are an excellent way to keep moisture from reaching your books, but plastic also traps moisture inside the bag, leading to mold and mildew.
There are several factors which make it a bad idea to store books in plastic bags. At first consideration, keeping your books clean by placing them in plastic sounds like a good idea. In actuality, placing books in plastic can lead to mold and mildew blooms, insect proliferation and general deterioration of the book.
Why is Plastic A Bad Idea for Book Storage?
Generally, books need to be able to breathe. Placing books on a bookshelf with room around them so that air can circulate is one of the recommendations encouraged by professionals in the book repair and restoration business. When you place books in a sealed plastic bag the book does not have any airflow around it.
Plastic bags are well suited for certain purposes, because they can keep moisture in the environment from negatively impacting the books. Plastic bags form a barrier against moisture from the surrounding situation. At the same time, any moisture which is already present in the book is trapped inside, and any insect larvae, eggs, or carcasses form a ripe environment for reproduction. The moisture and food provide a welcome habitat for insects.
Mold is naturally found on nearly every surface, and some of the spores are very destructive. The fungi, which can be trapped inside a plastic bag, will thrive because of plentiful food, moisture, and other debris such as microorganisms. No matter how carefully you clean the books you place in storage, there are certain microscopic-level contaminants which go into the bag with the book.
TIP: More information about storing books is available at ‘What is the best container to store books in?
Polyethylene or polypropylene bags are sometimes used as a secondary protection against water damage in a storage area which is at higher water risk. In high risk areas for water, pests, mold and mildew, there are environmental issues which are not resolved by placing books in plastic bags. In fact the combination of plastic bags and high humidity levels increases the risk of mold.
Plastic Bags Are Not Durable
Placing a book in a plastic bag in the belief that it will protect the book is not helpful for another reason. Most easily obtainable plastic is not substantial. A small break or tear in the plastic essentially allows for insects and vermin to enter the bag and do the damage that they are known for.
Plastic Bags are Not Environmentally Friendly
In a world that is struggling with a growing mountain of non-biodegradable materials, adding to the debris is not a responsible way to be a friend to the environment. Instead of making the ecological problems worse by using plastic, if you must wrap your books for storage, use paper or cloth that is free of dyes and chemicals.
When Plastic Bags Are Useful
There are times when plastic bags are used to provide solutions to frequent problems with book conditions. The typical examples are to dry out books with dampness issues, to eliminate mold and mildew problems, and to destroy insect infestation.
When books have become wet for various reasons, there are well researched methods to dry them safely, with the least possible permanent damage. However, if there is a large scale group of books that need drying out processes applied, it may be a challenge to get the process done for multiple volumes before mold can set in. In this instance, freezing the books is the best option. Freezing doesn’t harm the books, and they may be kept frozen until they can be thawed and dried properly. Briefly, the steps to freeze the books are as follows.
- Wrap the book in unprinted newsprint or in paper towels
- Seal the wrapped book in a plastic freezer bag. Use one with a zipper closure, or fold the open end over several times and tape it closed.
- Place the book in the coldest freezer available. -20 to -40°F is preferable.
- To thaw the book, let it come back up to room temperature while still in the plastic bag (2 to 48 hours). When the book reaches room temperature, remove it from the bag and discard paper towels. Continue the process using air drying techniques.
Mold and Mildew Treatment
Freezing a book does not kill mold and mildew, it simply inhibits the growth of further mold spores until cleaning techniques can be applied. Be sure that books with signs of mold are brushed off outdoors or in a well-ventilated location. Place the affected books in a plastic bag and seal it so that it doesn’t affect other items in the freezer. When you are ready to treat the book with mold inhibiting products (denatured alcohol or hydrogen peroxide), it can be removed from the freezer and wiped down with a soft cloth or a vacuum.
Unlike freezing treatments to provide time to combat dampness or mold issues, freezing books to eliminate insects such as silverfish and others needs to happen quickly to prevent further irreversible damage to your books. If you notice an insect problem with specific books, you can begin by putting the books in a sealed plastic bag and placing the bag in the freezer. The freezer must be cold enough (0 degrees F or lower) and the books must be in the freezer long enough to kill unwanted pests. An overnight stay is usually not enough to kill off the unwanted book inhabitants.
Should I cover my books with plastic?
For books which see the likelihood of high usage, or less than careful handling, a type of protection is provided by plastic covers. The covers are advertised under various brand names, and are designed to protect dust jackets and bindings against stains, handling wear, skin oils and other destructive factors.Since these protective plastic covers are not firmly attached to the book, it is possible for the book to breathe. Before going to the expense and trouble of covering your collection items with plastic, it is helpful to understand the various types of plastic covers.
Laminated covers are a permanent protection for dust jackets. The clear laminate is applied directly to the book or dust jacket. It is not intended to be removed. It does protect against skin oils, handling wear, and spills. The laminate doesn’t harm the soft covers or dust jackets. Libraries may use laminate and a stiffener to give extended wear for soft cover books.
A specialized type of plastic dust jacket cover is referred to as a pocket cover. To use this type of protection, the dust jacket is slipped into the front and back pockets of the cover. Since the pocket can be fastened gently to the book itself, it creates fewer permanent effects to the book.
It is apparent that the intended use of plastic is what makes it a good choice or a poor choice for storing books. Books need to be able to breathe to remain in the best condition. Therefore a sealed bag for storage purposes is not recommended. A warm and moist environment inside a plastic bag can quickly lead to a bloom of mold and mildew.
When treating books to salvage them due to dampness, insect infestation, or mold, placing them in a plastic bag and freezing them is a useful way to give yourself time to proceed with steps to ameliorate the problem. The purpose of the plastic bag in this instance is to protect the surrounding items from the effects of damaging insects and fungal spores that may be within the book, and protect the enclosed book from the moisture in the freezer.
Book covers made of various types of plastic are designed to protect the book and dust jacket from careless handling. A vinyl cover may prevent grease, food, dirt, and stains from ruining the condition of the book. These covers are often attached to library books, magazines, and soft cover volumes to maintain their original condition while permitting frequent usage.