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If you no longer have the space for books within your residence and your collection hasn’t stopped growing, you may find yourself searching for solutions. One such idea may be to use an unfinished basement for excess book storage. Although there are some risks associated with this, there are some basic precautions you can take.
Basement storage, especially in an unfinished basement, is not the ideal conditions for books, photographs, and other documents. There are, however, ways to safeguard against some types of damage associated with storage in less-than-ideal spaces, such as humidity, temperature fluctuations, and infestation.
Make sure you evaluate your home, first, to maximize usable book storage within the residence before deciding to utilize spaces such as basements, attics, and garages that carry higher risk of damaging or destroying your books.
Do an assessment of the space you plan to use
Not every basement is identical or exposed to the same environmental conditions. If your basement is finished, the conditions within it should not be markedly different from the rest of your home. If it is unfinished, however, it may require some serious precautions to better protect your books. Here are some potential threats to keep in mind:
Humidity and moisture are going to be your biggest threats, in many places. Your local climate and geography matter. Are you in a flood zone? Are you in a runoff area? Does your basement tend to flood when there are heavy rains?
Are your basement walls concrete? Exposed cinder block? Are they painted or sealed in some way? Do you see signs of mold, seeping moisture, or bowing/buckling? Do you smell mildew? Do the walls show cracks or crumbling areas?
Your roof, gutters, and drainage systems could also affect the condition of your basement when it comes to moisture. Plumbing emergencies can also quickly turn a basement into a shallow pool.
The second major threat to stored books is often infestation of some kind. Insects which are already drawn to books may find the higher humidity levels of a basement welcoming. You also may need to think about larger animals, whether they are rodents, raccoons, or snakes. If your basement has windows or outside access of any kind, do you find traces of animal occupation within the space?
Prepare a plan of action
After taking a hard look at your basement space, you may have found some problems that need to be dealt with before it will be safe to store books there. Some of these risks may be insurmountable without the assistance of trained professional contractors or exterminators, but some can be handled by the homeowner.
To prepare for storing books in a basement, it is a good idea to optimize the space before you begin. Make sure you have adequate lighting, whether wired or temporary, to see what you are doing, and give the space a good cleaning first. If you have asthma, allergies, or any kind of respiratory sensitivities, it may be a good idea to wear a respirator mask while working in the basement, in case mold is present.
Dealing with damp and dirt
Moisture may not always come from floods, leaks, or catastrophic problems. Sometimes, humidity in a basement is caused purely by moisture leaching from the surrounding ground. Since books are best kept in conditions of 30%-50% humidity, you want to be aware of how far off this mark your basement is. If there is wiring, a dehumidifier might prove useful.
Alternatively, some storage options, such as plastic bins or vacuum bags, can help protect against dampness, but only if the book is wrapped, packed, and sealed in a dry place before being taken into the basement. Otherwise, ambient moisture in the air can be trapped inside plastic with a book, to condense and cause damage. Chemical dehydrators like silica gel packets may also prove useful, if stored with the books.
If you are using plastic totes with lids, you can eliminate the worst risks of water damage in the case of minor flooding or leaks. Depending on the size of the bin and the books, respectively, volumes can be placed on edge, as if on a shelf, or stacked flat in shallow containers. It is generally a good idea to organize books by shape and size, and keep similar ones together, to cut down on warping, sagging, and pressure marks.
If your basement is home to a family of raccoons, you will need to solve the problem of how they are accessing the space before making any other plans. If you have a mouse problem, however, you may be able to remediate the situation with traps, or you may wish to hire an exterminator.
While cardboard boxes–specifically acid-free archival quality boxes–are recommended for storage of valuable books, for the average homeowner working in a space like a basement, regular cardboard is likely to lure the sort of pests that like to use it for nesting material. These can easily damage your books in the process, with chewing, dung or urine, and other detritus.
Plastic bins with lids can provide some protection, in these situations, if secured correctly and kept in good shape. One advantage to uniform containers is that they can be easier to stack, organize, and label than a mismatched pile of boxes.
Organization and access
There are several reasons you may choose to store books in your basement. You may wish to contain and consolidate them, out of sight, or you may simply have overflowed your other shelving, but still wish to be able to read your stored volumes periodically.
Adding shelving in a basement, whether to hold bins, boxes, or exposed books, can have its own advantages. It is often beneficial to elevate things off the floor of a basement, in areas where water damage is most likely to threaten. It can assist with maintaining some air flow around books, even boxed ones, to cut down on dust and mold spores. It can simply be a way to ensure your stored collection is kept in some form of order.
If you do wish to add shelving, make sure it is solid and sufficiently sturdy to support the weight you will be placing on it. It is a good idea to ensure the floor is level first, and use shims and wall supports to prevent shelving from tipping over and injuring someone.
If shelving is not an option, it is also possible to use scrap wood or even cinder blocks as spacers. This will raise bins or boxes above floor level, and help provide protection against water damage as well as scurrying pests.
It is always a good idea to avoid placing books, bins, or boxes directly against the walls in any case. This promotes air circulation and cuts down on the threat of moisture wicking through the basement walls from the surrounding soil. You also do not want to place them right in front of or beneath windows (which may leak or be broken) or plumbing pipes (which could drip or even break in inclement weather). Finally, if important maintenance points in your home are located in the basement, such as an electrical panel, a furnace, a sewer shut-off, or drain clean-outs, never obstruct your access to these fixtures.
Although the basement is not the ideal space to keep books, there are times when it is the most viable solution. Avoiding off-site storage fees, keeping relatively easy access, and not wanting to discard parts of your collection may be among your reasons for choosing basement storage. Following the tips above can help you do this as safely as possible.