Accidentally adapted to superficial requirements

I don't want to reveal where I work, but let's say one of my tasks involves dealing with lots of library books. And I don't work in a library.

I wouldn't have thought it would be worth it to our company, but we borrow tons of books, sometimes get them shipped from elsewhere in the US. We scan them and ship them back. If I traded my annual income for the amount of money we spend just on shipping books that I have to deal with, it might be a step up for me.
North Stacks by fabi_k on flickr, Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial-sharealike license
Anyway, one of the libraries loans us very old books, so old and fragile that they're hoping to get the books scanned by us, and then take the books out of circulation. Library patrons can use the scanned images and never have to touch the books again. These are valuable books, some of them are bound newspapers or journals from 1890s or 1850s. (Maybe some are reprints, I can't really tell. But I've dealth with some that are supposed to be 100 years old, and you can see the creases where the flimsy paper issues were folded in half presumably shipped that way when they first came to the library. Reprints wouldn't be folded like that. Plus some have library stamps from when they were received by the library, 1919 and earlier. They're either very old or incredibly old, for periodicals.)

The lending library is as protective of this material as you'd expect. You can't blame them. But we ship these things back and forth in cardboard boxes. We put lots of packing paper around it to cushion the books, but they're so heavy that the paper is just squashed flat by the time it reaches its destination, and the books are sorta rattling around inside the box. Then the boxes inevitably get dented or crunched a little, because heavy boxes get stacked on top of each other, or because people in the shipping industry can't afford to be gentle when they're hauling these boxes all around on a deadline.

I tend to re-use boxes if at all possible, because it saves the company money and it's better for the environment. Sometimes I've re-used boxes that were a little dented or had been squashed. It looks like the box has been kicked around, but the contents might be fine still, especially if you stuff some more packing material in it.

After a few shipments like that, I got feedback from the library that they'd like us to use more packing material so the books are more secure. They're worried when they see dented boxes.

For a while, I tried stuffing lots of extra crumpled newspapers all around the books, and I gave up on re-using the dented boxes. I just used fresh boxes every time. It's still a losing battle, because no matter how much crumpled up paper you stuff around the edges, the weight of the books always crushes it flat in transit, and then it looks to the untrained eye as if you didn't put enough packing material in the box.

Eventually I noticed that if you pack a box completely solid with books, or even cut the box down to the size of the books and tape it tightly around them, the box won't get dented or squashed. The newspapers or packing paper won't squash flat and let books rattle around, because they have no room at all to rattle around. The library stopped complaining. Great.

When I kept thinking about it, I realized that I was making something like an endoskeleton. The hardcover books inside prevented the soft cardboard from moving enough to look damaged. But what I was really doing was letting the books take abuse directly. If they did get thrown around in transit, the books and their spines and covers might take the damage, instead of some of it getting absorbed by the packing material.

So now I take old, damaged boxes and fold them flat, then use them as layers of packing material. A half inch of layered cardboard should absorb a lot more than just the plain box and some packing paper.

Maybe I'm not describing it clearly, but it seemed funny when I looked back on it how I found a perfect way to make the boxes look better superficially, apparently keeping the librarians happy, yet I was actually putting the books at more risk by doing it that way.

[Photo of University of Michigan Hatcher Library "North Stacks" is by flikr user "fabi_k". Used under the Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial-sharealike license. No, Hatcher was not the library where I developed this endoskeletal shipping technique.]


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