The process by which we go about using records would probably be enough to give a behavioral psychologist a field day. It's rare to find two people who are exactly the same as one another and asking someone who has been doing things in a certain way for any length of time to suddenly go about the process in a different way is likely to meet with a fair bit of resistance.
One of the most significant extra stages that people routinely apply is the use of aftermarket inner and outer sleeves for their records. Some people cannot begin to comprehend the idea of keeping their records in the supplied inner sleeves and others are equally aghast at the idea of the whole record not being protected from the dusty, abrasive mess that is life in general. Let the record state, I am not one of these people. As well as being the sort of monster that doesn't alphabetize their record collection, preferring instead a vague grouping by genre, I have never purchased an outer plastic sleeve for a record. While I'll continue to make use of one if a used record comes with it, I find them something of an irritant for reasons I'll come to.
So what's the thinking behind aftermarket inner and outer sleeves? As with most aspects of analogue, there are multiple parts to this—some of them directly pertaining to the playback of the record itself and others that are more emotive. This piece will attempt to cover the basics and leave you equipped to make your own decisions.
Firstly, what do we mean by inner and outer sleeves? The standard packaging for a record is in two parts. The outer sleeve is the visible section of the packaging and contains the inner sleeve that houses the record itself. Aftermarket sleeves are available for both bits but they work slightly differently. Aftermarket inner sleeves are designed to wholly replace the existing inner sleeve supplied with the record while aftermarket outer sleeves are intended to encase the existing outer to protect it from the outside world.
Why would you want to do this? In the case of inner sleeves, the idea is that many designs of aftermarket sleeves offer much better protection for the record than the ones supplied with many records. This is certainly not without foundation. Many modern releases come with a stiff cardboard inner sleeve that is well-suited for having artwork or lyrics printed on it. It is less well-suited for the business of keeping the record stored in a way that keeps it free of scratches or other issues. Many of you will note that older releases almost inevitably came with a softer inner sleeve and the reasons for its deletion are generally down to style and cost.
Aftermarket inner sleeves are generally designed to be softer and less prone to marking the record during insertion or extraction. They also generally (if not exclusively) have antistatic properties that are of considerable importance if you have static issues with your record player. A treated record, placed in an antistatic sleeve will stay treated. Even if you are unconcerned about marking a record, these sleeves can make a great deal of sense for this reason alone.
There are a number of different sleeves on the market but they broadly break down into two different types. There are bag-type sleeves that are designed to sit inside the existing cardboard sleeve as a liner and sturdier designs that replace the existing sleeve in its entirety. There is no right and wrong choice as to which one is best for you. My personal preference is for the Goldring Exstatic sleeves that completely replace the existing inner sleeve (I generally just leave it in the outer alongside) as they are sturdy and combine soft inner surfaces with a standard white paper outside that, should the need ever arise, would allow for pencilled-in comments on specific phono preamp loading, any damage to the playing surfaces of the record or other comments you might feel were worth remembering the next time you played the record. If the ability to leave messages for your future self doesn't appeal, the Taguchi liner style sleeves are excellent value and work well.
Outer protective sleeves handle a slightly different set of situations. Provided that the inner sleeve is present, the outer sleeve of a record has no direct contact with the record itself and instead serves as a second layer of protection and place for artwork and the like. An aftermarket outer sleeve is designed less to offer further protect the record and more to protect the sleeve itself. Arguments can be made for the extra layer of protection helping to keep dust off the record but in reality the gains are pretty marginal.
As such, the outer sleeve is more about protecting your purchase in the condition it arrived in that having much in the way of a direct impact on how the record itself will play. This is not to say that there are benefits to using them—if you are in a high humidity environment, they can be very useful—that they are more about the preservation of your investment than any positive change to the way it plays. Of course, preserving investments is often worthwhile. If you have bought a record that you suspect may be worth something one day or you’ve shelled out on something rather rare and expensive, there is undoubtedly a benefit to keeping it in the condition you purchased them in.
If you are deciding whether to allocate your budget to inner or outer sleeves, I would generally recommend the former if you can't do both. As previously noted, I don't tend to use outer sleeves. I am content for my record collection to pick up the signs of use and I specifically hate the difference in friction between a record with an outer sleeve and one without that means sleeved ones tend to grip the record next to them. I am unapologetically weird though so it's best to take my thoughts here with a pinch of salt.
If you do want to use outer sleeves, there are two additional factors that might shape your choices. The first is that cheaper sleeves tend to yellow and cloud over time. This has no bearing on their ability to protect the record itself but can look a bit grim after a while. The second is that open ended style sleeves can be irritating to get the record in and out of. Slightly more expensive options like the Ultimate Outer 2.5 give you a sleeve that should not discolor and is easy to get the record in and out of. If you have something very special to take care of, resealable sleeves can also make a lot of sense as they offer the best overall protection.
Ultimately, no harm at all will come from a more robust policy of protection for your records. As part of a sensible cleaning and storage policy, it will ensure that your collection stays in excellent condition for years to come. There are no hard and fast rules to this—do what works for you and enjoy the extra little ritual that makes vinyl what it is.