Monday, May 16, 2011

Beautiful Hardwood Bookshelves

Metal shelves are fine for the bulk of collections storage – for all those items you want to keep but don’t need to be immediately accessible.  In our house, our books need to be accessible and therefore we need bookcases.  Personally, I love the look of a finely made bookcase.

Our 2008 flood experience (toilet supply line break on second floor resulting in water damage in 12 rooms) threatened our books but, miraculously, we only suffered one loss – a Mennonite hymnal left on the ruined piano.  So I guess we owe a debt of gratitude to our cheap particle board bookcases (IKEA and the equivalent) which took the brunt of the water onslaught while effectively sheltering the books.  In assessing the damage, the water-damaged bookcases were labeled trash.

Thanks to my wife’s impressive skills at working Craigslist, we were able to upgrade to some nice hardwood bookcases.  When we moved back into the house, our family room featured a set of new (secondhand) bookcases nestled on the new carpet.

Discussing my preservation concerns with Laura Hortz Stanton, Director of Preservation Services at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, I take the opportunity to boast about our handsome new family room.  She isn’t as impressed as I had hoped.  “You have to be careful with offgassing,” she says.  “The bookcases can offgas and so does a new carpet.  After installing a carpet, it’s best to give it time to settle down and offgas before bringing in collection items.”

Offgassing is the release of acid chemicals into the air.  “That beautiful fragrant smell of a cedar bookcase is really offgassing,” Laura says.  “So is the smell of a new carpet.”  The acid chemicals can migrate into the items, especially paper-based objects like books.  This interior pollution can accelerate processes of discoloration and brittleness.

Laura recommends that hardwood bookcases should always be finished and treated with a sealant.  This significantly reduces the amount of offgassing.  In addition, she suggests laying sheets of mylar on the shelves that can act as an inert barrier between the books and the wood.

As for our old particle board bookcases, Laura says they really weren’t so bad.  “The particle board and exterior grade plywood bookcases offgas some but tend to be less of a concern than many of the hardwoods.”

© 2011 Lee Price


  1. As noted, our "new" bookcases were secondhand and not emitting a noticeable smell. Also - it took a while in the unpacking process to get to books, so I think at least some of the "new carpet smell" had dissipated. Does that improve our standings in her evaluation?

  2. Probably even more to our credit -- we insisted on storage units with environmental controls. All our boxes of stuff were stored at a constant and fairly low temperature through that fall, winter, and spring.