Saturday, July 21, 2018

How to pack your library: A guide

That's right folks, this is not a science post. After 45 posts about information, quanta, intelligence, and what not, a how-to guide? Well I only have one blog, and I didn't know where to put this stuff, that I think could be helpful to others, because I've done this several times and I learned a bunch. So now you get to read about how to move your library of precious books from one house to another.

First things first. If your library consists out of a pile of paperbacks you have largely forgotten about, then this post is not for you. In fact, I'm wondering how you even got to this page. I'm talking to people whose library looks like this:
The Upstairs Library
What you see in the pic is actually only half my library. The other half is behind you from this view, along with two shelves in the basement. It's a bit more than a thousand books. 

Thing is, it is a collection of mostly First Edition and rare books, so you would not want to just throw them into a box when you move. And I am moving. How do you make sure the books survive the trip?

I've had to move this library before (from California to Michigan), and I've learned some things from that move. One of the things you need to know about movers is that they don't really care very much about what is inside a box they are moving. They are under time pressure, and if something breaks then insurance will pay for it. So it is up to you to keep the stuff safe.

When I moved last,  I wrapped every book individually into a foam material. That protected the books well (all books survived just fine), but it was expensive and time consuming. If you have not moved like this before, I can assure you that packing material is expensive. By packing each book individually in the material that you would ordinarily wrap china, you not only buy a lot of that material (at about $15 a roll) but you also pack fewer books per box. And packing each book into foam takes time. For this move, I was looking to do better. Here's what I came up with.

First, let us think what you have to protect against. There are two main threats to rare books. One is physical injury to the box, which will impact the books inside the box from the outside. Second is rubbing of books against each other, damaging their covers or dust jackets. To protect against rubbing you do not need to wrap the books in foam, you just need to wrap them. To protect against injury to the box, you need to protect the box, not every book.  My solution was to use paper to wrap each book individually, and line the box with foam. It doesn't protect you against catastrophic box intrusion, but it should work as well as the previous method, with a substantial cost saving.

First, buy some boxes. What size do you need? The answer is: small, as small as you can find. You may think: "Shouldn't I get a big box where I can get as many books in as I can?" Well if you did this, it would become so heavy that your movers will either refuse to touch it, or else injure it while struggling with it, possibly for spite. So go small. In my previous move I used "book size" boxes (not all companies have them; they are one-foot cubes), but for this move, I went with the "Extra Small" size. The dimensions are 15'' long, 12'' wide, and 10'' high. In my case they were made by Home Depot, but I suspect other retailers carry that size.

I like this box because it is not high. Books are not high. In fact, almost no book is higher than 10 inches (but some are close). So you will be able to fit your books standing up in this box, and if there is some room at the top, you can put a layer of books there. If not, you fill with paper, as I'll show.

Here's a pic of some of the boxes I bought. (I ended up getting about 65 of those).

How many do you need? This is not easy to answer. I think you can get at least 15 books into such a box, up to 25 books if they are small. So, on average, think 20 books per box. I'll show you a few pics later.

OK, so let's first make the boxes. I assume you know how to tape up a standard box. I double tape the bottom (and later the top), and also tape the sides of the box. I used the tape below, after I tried many different types that all were awful. It's not too flimsy, and the cutter actually works.

Now let's line them. For that, I use dish foam, 1 foot high, separated into 1 ft squares. There are 50 squares in a roll.

One square will perfectly cover each 12 inch side of the box. For the 15'' side, I cut 3'' to the right of the perforation, leave that piece attached to the next and cut 3 inches to the left of the following perforation. It looks like this: 

Pieces 3 and 5 are 15'' and line the sides. Piece 4 is 18" and will cover the bottom, with a little overlap to the sides. Each roll will give you enough for 8 boxes, with a little bit to spare (but sometimes the beginning of the roll is unusable). 

I use the tape to glue the foam to the sides:

Do the same on all sides:

Don't worry that the bottom does not stick to the side. Once the bottom is in it'll be fine. Besides, the books will press against it.

Remember the box is 10'' high, so two inches reach up to the cover.

With the foam in, we're ready to wrap books. I ended up using paper, which is cheap and doesn't interact with the covers of the books. These rolls here have sheets that are 2 feet x 2 feet, and there's seventy in each roll. One sheet is enough for one book. You begin like this:
Fold over the bottom, then the top, then fold the left over on top of the book, then flip it over. This way, the fragile edges of the book get double coverage. Now it looks like this:
Now I just take small piece of tape to finish it off:

If you have a cat, she will probably want to assist you, by the way. I suggest wrapping a bunch of books before packing a box, because that way you can select the right sizes to optimally fill the box.

If you have fairly slim books, it does not hurt to pack two of them together, as their dust jackets will not be able to rub against each other:
Packed together, they are just like one thicker book, and you saved yourself one sheet:
You notice that I'm not very precise when wrapping, because this is altogether unnecessary. 

The roll usually has a little wave at the bottom, which is perfect to place the book on before you begin to wrap:

(Actually you can do this any which way you want. I'm just showing off this book. Yes, that's a first edition in first state dust jacket. And no you can't have it.) 

Time to put books into the box. There are two ways to do this, depending on the size of the book. Big ones go in like this:
Often there is room to put a few books on top:
Once you've done that, crumple a few sheets to make sure the box is completely "full" after closing it:

Finally, close and number:

If you are really worried about the contents, you can of course make a list for each box. I did not do this, but I did use an app called "Sortly" that allows me to take a picture of each box, name it, tag it, and a field where I can write something about the contents. For the box above, I just wrote "Nonfiction", because these books where from the nonfiction shelf. If the moving company loses a box, then I have proof that it existed, what it looked like, and I have some idea what's inside. 

I also have some oversized books (the "coffee table" kind). For those, I used bigger boxes (the "small box" type), and because these boxes are very heavy, I used the "extra strength" type.

After all is said and done, your library should look like this:

These are the 66 "extra small" boxes. There are also nine "small" boxes not in the view, for a total of 75. 

Yes, this is time-consuming. It helps a lot to develop a routine so that every step is essentially the same. That way, you can achieve something akin to an assembly line. If you have your strips of adhesive tape all ready and lined up, you can do a book in 20 seconds flat. 

In my case, all these books will go to storage first, because I won't have a library in the sabbatical apartment we will be renting. If you have to store your books too, let me give you one final piece of advice: get climatized storage. We'll put the piano into storage also, so the books and the piano will be reunited there (and of course pianos have to be stored climatized also). I'm assuming, of course, that if you have a library like mine, well then you also have a grand piano. It just comes with the territory. 


  1. I like your method and did much the same myself this past September. The smallest "book box" one can find is certainly the key.

    One thing you're missing, at least in several of the photographs, that would help for both general shelf wear as well as for packing/moving is to have all of your dust jackets covered with book jacket covers. This will help protect your dust jackets from wear and tear and help increase their long term value, particularly for rarer first editions.

    I notice that some of your collection likely already has these, à la the Heinlein, though it's obvious in that case that a book seller likely jacketed it far too late to protect the pristine original. At least it's protected from further future wear. If you think it's worth the time and protection, it may be a worthwhile thing to do when you're unpacking and reshelving them on the other end.

    Brodart is one of the larger sellers of dust jacket covers and they make a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and types. I've found that their Advantage I covers are pretty solid and versatile for most of the book sizes you've got. Though fair warning: you can go down the rabbit hole and lose a few hours researching dust cover materials and archival types. In the end you want to look for something that covers the jacket, but doesn't stick to it. This will allow you to replace the jacket cover with a new one if necessary without causing damage to the dust jacket itself.

    (original comment posted at BoffoSocko.com)

  2. You are absolutely right about the dust jacket covers. Indeed many of my books have them, but I've been lazy in not getting them for those books that are still in pristine condition, so that they remain that way. Indeed, if all the books had them, I would not worry so much about rubbing!