Building Archival Boxes and Custom Enclosures

Rows of grey archival boxes on shelves

Archival boxes are expensive.  Specialty archival boxes that aren’t standard sizes are even more expensive.  Acid free enclosures are similarly costly and often simply don’t fit all of the unusually sized items in a collection.  So, what is an archivist with a limited budget to do?  Build all the things!

Hand making enclosures and boxes is something that happens at many archives and museums.  This post compiles some of my favourite box building, enclosure creating, archival-crafting resources.  This list is merely a guide and collection of resources.  Different types of materials are going to require specific storage conditions and when in doubt of how to store something you should consult a conservation specialist.

Archival Boxes

  • How to save money by making your own archival boxes by Emily Lonie. This post provides a step-by-step guide for making archival boxes out of Coroplast.  This guide comes with photos, a materials list, and video resources.  Highlight recommend for anyone who is interested in making basic boxes from scratch.
  • Introduction to box making video by Jane Dalley of Dalley Froggatt Heritage Conservation Services.  This video provides examples of how to build a range of standard types of archival boxes.  It examples what types of boxes are best and how you can craft your own using acid free products.
  • Simple corrugated board box for rare books.  This guide by the State Library of Queensland includes information on how to size boxes correctly and a basic design plan that shows you where to cut/fold when making a box.

Artifact supports

  • An introduction, with photos, to building custom boxes and supports for artifacts.  In this particular example ethafoam is used to carve a secure supports for the artifact to sit in the box.  The foam is then lined with tyvek (an inert material) to further protect the object.
  • This “How to Make An Artifact Box” post goes through the details of building a box from scratch but it also includes instructions for building an artifact tray that will allow you to tie an artifact down with secure supports.  This particular post draws on the custom mount process used by the Eiteljorg Museum. I’ve seen some of the Eiteljorg’s custom built boxes and support in-person and they are pretty amazing — I had serious storage envy.
  • A mount per day keeps the conservator away”  provides a great summary of why artifact mounts are important.  The post includes a description of the work that went into creating storage mounts for 17 cowboy hats, 24 pairs of boots, 29 accessories, and 124 accessories held by the National Music Centre.  It includes a lot of great photos that show what proper mounts look like when completed.
  • There is also a great pinterest board that highlights a range of mounting and storage techniques used in artifact storage.

Enclosures

  • Making Protective Enclosure for Books and Paper Artifacts by the Canadian Conservation Institute.  This guide provides instructions on how to make slip-cases for books, boxes for archival material, and portfolio style enclosures for booklets, manuscripts and other material.  This outline includes a number of very detailed drawings and measurement guides.
  • Making a Four Flap Enclosure for Library and Archival Materials.  Video! If you’re a visual learner and find diagrams hard to follow this this a good demo of a four-flap enclosure.
  • Enclosures for Photographic Materials.  This resource includes information on how to make paper enclosures for photographs and glass-plate negatives. It also includes guidelines for making archival quality plastic enclosures for photos.  For folks who are curious about the advantages and disadvantages to different types of enclosures this post also provides a solid breakdown of pros and cons.
  • Bonus resource: Basic Conservation of Archival Materials Guide (2003 revised edition) by the Canadian Council of Archives provides information on general archival storage, material types, and conservation best practices.

What are your top tips for building archival boxes or enclosures from scratch? 

Photo credit: Burns Library, Boston College. Photo used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Hurdles of Moving a Heritage Institution

Anyone can who working in a heritage organization or archive can tell you that storage space is often at a premium.  No matter how much space you have you often need more. Sometimes this space crunch, space renovations, or other factors can cause a heritage organization to decide to relocate.  Moving a heritage institution isn’t a task to be done on a whim, tremendous planning, manpower, and organization are needed when relocating archives and museums.

Think about the shipment of temporary exhibits: insurance and loan documents need to be completed by both parties, the exhibit is normally store in specially made packaging, the condition of everything needs to be documented when it arrives and when it leaves, and space needs to be made available to unpack and install the exhibit.  Even the relocation of small temporary exhibits take lots of planning and paperwork.  Multiple that effort tenfold when an entire facility is being relocated.

Some of the primary areas of consideration when moving or renovating a heritage facility include:

  • Packing: material that is not already boxed needs to be packed in a manner which ensures safety during movement.  Fragile material and oversize material such as artwork requires special consideration in developing material specific packaging.  Books and paper material is heavy and people backing material should be conscious of those who will have to lift the boxes.
  • Shipping: Even just moving material small distances requires a lot of planning.  Staff who are helping move the material should be trained in proper handling procedures, insurance should be acquired for the traveling material, and additional security issues may apply to valuable items.  
  • Documentation: Everything should be well documented including: who is doing the moving, box content lists, timelines, insurance, costs, etc.
  • Public: Many heritage organizations exist for the public and hold items in the public trust.  As such,  planning for the least interruption of public services is often important.  Granted, in some cases service interruption and facility closure is impossible to avoid.

Pest Control and Your Family Photos

Mice, silverfish, cockroaches, and a whole pile of other creepy crawlies can do serious damage to your collection of photographs, letters, scrapbooks, and family memorabilia.  This damage can take the form of nesting, eating, and burrowing in your paper based materials.

Most libraries and archives maintain stringent Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems to protect their holdings from unwanted pests.  These IPM systems are often far too time consuming and expensive for the average person to undertake.  So what can you do to protect your family’s history?

Storage

  • The majority of pests like dark damp places.  Whenever possible avoid storing items in basements, garages, crawlspaces, or attics.
  • If you know where pests may be entering your house, eg. poorly sealed windows or doors, block off the entry route. 
  • When practical store items in sealed containers NOT cardboard boxes that will deteriorate when wet and can easily be entered by most pests. 

Eliminating Pests

  • Preventative action is better than reactive action, but where necessary there are methods you can take to try and eliminate pests. The method you choose will also depend on what type of pest is in your collection and how comfortable you are with each pest control method.
    • React at the first signs of pests – droppings or signs of nesting.  Do not wait for the problem to get worse.
    • Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has a great chart (page 1 and page 2) that outlines which type of control method is applicable to each pest type.
    • CCI’s full pest management guidelines can be seen here.

What other methods have you used to protect your family’s photographs and documents?

Full Disclosure: This post may have been inspired by encountering my cat playing with a mouse in my living room this morning.