Don’t Store Books or Documents in Sealed Plastic!

A newsletter reader sent me a link to an online article that made me shudder when I read it. The article claims:

“Do you have an old book or important document that has been passed down from generation to generation? These books and documents break down over time due to oxygen, moisture, and other hazards. By sealing it, you’re also giving it added protection in the event of a flood, fire (smoke), or accidental damage.”

I am no expert in preservation, but I believe the last thing you want to do to a valuable old book or photo or other document is to seal it in an airtight plastic bag, especially a bag that is not labeled “archival quality.” Sealing in a cheap plastic bag can cause more damage than it prevents!

Paper, photographs, film, and tape are all made from materials that change over time. When these materials change, they will leach chemicals or give off gases that will loop back and inflict self damage if they are “sealed in their own juices.” Your books, photographs, and documents will last much longer if they are exposed to the air, where the chemicals and gases can dissipate. Storage temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees and humidity levels between 50 and 60 percent are ideal.

Archival plastic enclosures can be made from polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene. Don’t use any plastic that is not one of these three, and don’t use anything that is not labeled “archival quality.” Also, never seal it.

Whatever you do, never use a normal, store-bought “baggie.”

You can read the bad advice in an article by Matt Ryan on Lockergnome, a very popular web site, at http://www.lockergnome.com/news/2011/11/01/five-alternative-uses-for-a-vacuum-sealer.

You can read much better advice about the long-term preservation of all sorts of materials in the NorthEast  Document Conservation Center‘s web site at: https://www.nedcc.org.

4 Comments

True, and there are archival boxes and papers for wrapping an old book for storage. Had kept an 1869 Diary kept by my maternal Great Grandmother, wrapped that way and in a archival box. costs a little money but worth it to not have it lost, then finally have transcribed it and given the whole thing plus her photo to the Fenimore Historical Library in Cooperstown, NY. Someone already had given her brother’s 1870 Diary, so in the process a Historian friend made photos of each page of that with their permission and we transcribed it last year:) Now those little diaries need not be handled to know what is in them, they are fragile enough. And I kept copies of both on my computer of course.

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Your point about not sealing material in an archival plastic bag is well taken. However, not sealing the bag leaves the contents open to attack by insects such as silverfish, roaches etc.

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I made the mistake many years ago to follow the practice of lamination which is sealing in a heated plastic coating. Thank goodness, I did only a few items! I simply wanted to share that this also is a very inadvisable action to take with the idea of saving a paper document.

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