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Conservation Conversations // Boxing The Unwiedly

September 17, 2015 by Henry Hebert

Conservators working with research library collections are often confronted with objects more difficult to store and handle than books. At times we must become a bit creative in designing and fabricating enclosures for these items, so that they can be safely stored and are easily delivered to patrons in the reading room. The enclosure must always be constructed of high-quality, stable materials, fit the item well, and be intuitive to use. I have found that, in most cases, I can accomplish this with just a few standard materials on hand. In describing my process on a recent project, I hope to show some of these principles in action.

Patent of Nobility

I was recently confronted with the challenge of building an enclosure for this French Patent of Nobility from 1816. The manuscript document itself is made of parchment, measuring approximately 14″ x 20″. Attached to the lower left hand corner, via 4 woven textile laces, is a very heavy wax pendant seal (approximately 1″ thick and 5″ in diameter). The corner of the parchment has been folded back, so that the woven textile can pass through two layers of strong parchment. Seals like this were often attached as a pendant, rather than applied to the folded or rolled document, so that it can be read without destroying the seal. The colors of the lacing are often representative of the livery colors of the document’s issuer.

Wax Seal (detail)

While the seal remains securely attached, the weight of it has put significant strain on the woven lacing and they are beginning to fray.

When designing a unique enclosure, I try to take all the aspects of the item and its use into consideration. In this case, the parchment piece is not folded or rolled, so it should remain flat. If it were treated differently, then my final design would take that into consideration. I usually begin by asking the collection managers about storage conditions and anticipated use. Next I think about the types of materials needed to safely support the object.

I have found it best to build a custom enclosure from the inside-out, first measuring the object and then compensating for any padding or additional support before building a box. The wax seal is nearly 1″ thick, and needs to be snuggly held in place so that it is not damaged when moved. The parchment also has some dimensionality to it- and while I want the enclosure to provide some containment so that it does not completely curl, I do not want to force it to be flat. Closed-cell polyethylene foam (ethafoam) seems to be the best choice as the body of the support, since it is light weight, easy to cut, and chemically stable. I can also purchase it in a 2″ thick sheet.

I map out the position of the parchment and seal, and cut that out of the ethafoam. I then mount the ethafoam to a piece of B-flute blue corrugated board with hot-melt adhesive. This provides a light weight, but rigid base. For heavier objects requiring more structural support, I might choose something like honeycomb board. The cut edges of the ethafoam can be quite rough, so it must be covered to protect the object. The foam support is covered in a thick mulberry fiber paper, by just adhering the turn-ins on the underside of the foam with hot-melt adhesive. Since the wax seal must fit very tightly, I decide to line the area around the wax seal with a strip of 1/4″ thick Volara, a smooth polyethylene foam. The area under the seal and parchment are also lined in volara foam, making the depth of the tray a little more shallow.

Wax seal in foam enclosure

The open layout of the tray makes it easy for a researcher to lift the seal and turn it over.

Now that the piece has a nice little bed in which to lie, it needs a lid to hold it in place. I create a simple portfolio case from 4-ply mat board and attach the boards of the case with a pressure-sensitive adhesive tyvek tape. You could also use book cloth or linen here. The tray is attached to the case with 3M 415 double-sided tape.

Open Case

This lid comes open quite easily and I want to protect the sides of the tray, so I constructed a simple corrugated clamshell enclosure to fit using the same B-flute corrugated board.

Case in boxThis final box keeps the entire package secure while being lifted off the shelf. Combined with the inner portfolio, it also acts as a gentile “pressure lid” in case the parchment begins to move from changing environmental conditions.

Corrugated Box

I can now affix labels which describe the item inside and provide handling instructions to the patrons. As someone who fabricates and uses enclosures all the time, I can pretty quickly determine how they are intended to be used. This is not always the case with library or archives patrons, so it is best to provide clear descriptions or diagrams either on the lid or inside the enclosure.

Designing custom enclosures to fit unusual objects can be challenging, but also fun. With a limited number of simple, but high-quality materials, you can produce a safe and durable housing that can protect an object for many years.

  1. Patricia says:

    Very nice! I can’t tell for sure but it looks like the seal might slide out of its bed should the box be turned. I’m sure it’s snug but will it move if the box moves at an angle or is dropped? I think I would have added a raised “stop” at the top of the bed to prevent the seal from sliding out.

    • Henry Hebert says:

      The seal is snug enough that you can turn the box nearly upside-down and it will not come out of its bed. With both the portfolio lid and box closed, both parts of the item remain in place if moved in any direction or orientation.

      If the enclosure were dropped while closed, I feel pretty confident that the item would remain undamaged inside. It all really depends upon the height and angle of the drop, however. I could have added velcro strapping or cord ties to the edges of the box for extra security.

      That said, the enclosure is intended to be shelved and used flat. Labels on the outside instruct the user to keep it oriented that way and the reading room staff are well trained in shelving and retrieving items carefully. If the item was anticipated to be used at an upright angle, my design would have been very different.

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  • My name is Erin Fletcher, owner and bookbinder of Herringbone Bindery in Boston. Flash of the Hand is a space where I share my process and inspirations.
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