Gathering Imagination: Storing your Library

In the first article about collecting TTRPGs I gave an overview of things to consider as you get started. Today we’re going to talk about one of the most important aspects of your collection: how and where you store it.

It is often overlooked by the beginning TTRPG collector, but until fairly recently no one was printing TTRPG material with archiving in mind. Nowadays most things are printed on higher quality paper with acid-free inks and the like. Heck, even current small press and zine publications are of a higher quality than similar works from the Seventies, because most copier paper is acid free these days. What does this mean? Well, even if a book was kept on a shelf out of direct sunlight so there was no fading, in a dry place so there was no staple rust or mildew, the book could still be in poor condition. The material used to print the book would damage it over time, potentially making it more easily damaged by handling.

And this needs to be factored into your storage solutions. This isn’t to say you need to build a hermetically sealed clean room for your collection (though if you have the means…). It does mean you need to consider what you’re are storing before cramming it onto a shelf with other books. Shelves crammed tight with old TTRPG material may look and sound impressive, but not if you are damaging your collection in the process.

So here are some things to consider when looking at shelves for your collection. As a general rule try to go with the best solution you have available to you based on your current resources (time and money being the two most limited, usually), and upgrade when you have the opportunity.

Bookcases are what come to mind for most folks when you talk about storing books. And if they’re good enough for libraries, who are we to argue? When deciding on shelves try to consider things like how much space you actually have for them. Hopefully you have measured your walls to get an idea of how many shelves you can fit. You don’t have to fill that space with shelves all at once. If you are just starting, consider the size of your current collection. Get enough bookcases to hold that without cramming, plus one. If you have limited space you can go with taller shelves, but I highly recommend anchoring tall shelves to the wall. They may seem stable under normal circumstances, but all it takes is an overactive cat or someone bumping it the wrong way to bring it toppling over.

As for the bookcases themselves, ideally you want shelves deep enough so that the books aren’t overhanging the edge, so anything 10-12 inches deep is good. Look at your collection and figure out the hight of your tallest book when shelved spine out. You’ll need at least one shelf that height, which may impact how high the rest of your shelves can be. It sounds obvious, but many folks leave parts of their collection on the floor because they didn’t take this into account. Basically, you want every book you shelve to stand up straight, with minimal compression (no over-crowding your shelves), and no overhanging a shelf edge. This will minimize shelf wear, which is damage done to a book simply by its own weight pressing down on a shelf, as well as the handling which comes from moving it on and off the shelf and contacting other books. 

The other thing which will limit shelf wear is location. Ideally, you want your bookcases against a wall, out of direct sunlight, in a space with consistently low humidity. But you might live in a damp basement apartment, and the only wall you can put shelves against faces the big balcony window that gets sun all day. Knowing these things, you can take steps. Buying a dehumidifier is a good idea, even if you think your space is consistently dry. Depending on where you live, sudden rainstorms can spike humidity, which could cause problems if you didn’t account for it. Sunlight, likewise, works slowly to fade the spines and covers of books, but you can protect your books. Obviously you could just keep your blinds drawn all the time. But you need sunlight, even if your books don’t. A better solution is to rig up narrow blinds or some sort of drapery over the bookcases themselves. You can make this as functional or as decorative as you prefer. But this will keep the sun off your books without turning you into Gollum.

What type of shelving is best? For most uses, your solid wood or MDF bookcases are going to be enough. Get one with as thick a shelf as possible, to avoid or delay the shelves bowing in the middle. If you are going to use the shelves which come with most build-it-yourself bookcases, it isn’t a bad idea to get some extras cut at your local hardware store and double them up. Don’t forget to take that extra thickness into account when fitting your books to the shelf.

There are other types of shelving to consider, and taking a look through your local Ikea’s catalogue is a great place to start, as well as business supply stores like Staples or Office Depot. One type, which I do not recommend for books but is great for storing boxes, is the wire shelf. You see them most often in kitchens or light industrial settings. Because of the spaces between the individual wire strands making up the shelf, they will damage individual books quite badly. But if part of your collection includes magazine and gaming modules, and you are storing those in magazine short boxes, these shelves are the perfect way to store those boxes. It keeps them off the ground, which minimizes the chance of damage if there is flooding. They also save you from the mistake most folks make with long and short boxes: stacking them. Newer drawer versions are made to be stacked, and those are great (and more expensive). But stacking the regular long and short boxes will, over time, mean damage to something just from the weight of the boxes alone. Putting them on these shelves solves that problem. Lastly, wire rack shelves are usually on wheels, which makes it so easy to move your collection if you need to.

Okay, so that’s some things to think about when looking at shelving. The big two considerations are what type of shelf is best and location, with the overarching idea of putting the least amount of environmental strain on your collection as possible. Yes, I know, not a terribly exciting topic. But if you don’t consider how to store your collection early on in the process, all you are doing is finding all those books and other material a new place in which to rot and molder away.

Next time we’ll talk about storage solutions specific to the type of book or material you are collecting. Do magazines need to be bagged and boarded? How should you store maps? Should any of my books touch the others? All good questions, so stay tuned.