Public advice on saving flood damaged books

Update – Advice from the State Library of Queensland, who’s website is now back up, is available at

There is advice available on what do if your books become flood damaged (essentially if wet, interleave them with absorbent paper and air dry them, if soaking, freeze them). Below are 3 sets of advice, the last one also gives advice on saving photographs. There is also a page at the National Archives here.

1) advice from the NLA

Water Damage at Home – You can Recover
Part 2: Drying Wet Material

OK so Murphy’s law has struck and your paper based treasures have been wet. What can you do to dry them before they go mouldy and will they be any good when they’re dry? Here are some tips to help you get a reasonable result.

Know your limitations. Refer items with water soluble media, photo albums, stamp albums, and any other items that are very important to you to a paper conservator as soon as possible. Preservation Services can supply a list of qualified conservators or they can be found in the Yellow Pages under Antiques- Reproductions and/or Restorations.
Most wet paper based items can be dried by a combination of air drying, interleaving with absorbent paper and mild pressing. Before you commence drying make sure you have the necessary space, equipment and supplies to do the job.
You will need:
A clean flat space that can be dedicated to the task for as long as necessary.
Plenty of absorbent paper such as paper towelling or blotting paper.
A fan to circulate cool air during drying.
Sheets of glass or particle board to use as weights.
Single sheet material can be successfully air dried until they are just slightly damp and then press them lightly between several sheets of absorbent paper under a piece of glass or particle board (larger than the item you are drying). Change the absorbent paper every hour to promote drying.
Books can be successfully dried by the following methods:
Interleave every 10 pages with absorbent paper (any more interleaving than this may damage the binding). Change the absorbent paper, placing new sheets between different pages every hour to promote drying. Remember to be very careful when interleaving wet books.
Alternatively, if the book is strong enough, stand it upright and fan it open to air dry until it is only slightly damp. Drying can be assisted by using a fan.

As with single sheet items, when the book is just slightly damp lay it flat, interleave every ten pages with fresh absorbent paper and press it lightly under a weight to help it dry flat. Change the interleaving hourly between different pages to promote drying. If additional weight is necessary a house brick or equivalent weight can be used on top of the glass or board.

Care should be taken not to crush or distort book spines. This can be avoided by not over interleaving and by not pressing the spines. When pressing, allow the spine to protrude slightly from under the weight to prevent damage.
Books with glossy or coated papers that have stuck together are difficult to separate and should be referred to a conservator.
Don’t try to dry a book by pressing out the water. This can cause the pages to stick together.
Avoid drying material in sunlight as this can cause yellowing, fading and uneven drying, damaging the structure.

and further information is available at:

2) advice from the University of Rochester

Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation

Most water-damaged materials from minor/moderate emergencies can be recovered in-house through air-drying. Depending on the degree to which the materials have been saturated, the drying process may last as long as a week or be completed in one day. Some degree of physical distortion and staining can be expected with air-dried materials. Once a decision to air-dry books in-house has been made, the damaged books should be sorted according to the degree of damage, as follows:

Do not air-dry vellum or leather bindings, materials with water-soluble inks/colors, manuscripts, drawings, photographs or rare materials without first consulting a conservator.

Take care when handling wet paper – it tears easily!

1. BOOKS THOROUGHLY SOAKED: Have been submerged in water or standing beneath running water. They will require intense individual attention to air-dry. If time does not allow this attention, freeze for later treatment. If large quantities of books are saturated, freeze-drying may be the best option.

a. Air-drying: Fewer than 500 non-coated paper books with non‑water soluble components.

Do not open book, fan pages or remove bindings.
Cover drying surface with plastic sheeting & absorbent paper (e.g. unprinted newsprint), as needed.
Stand the soaked book on end (head or tail) & allow water to drain.
Place paper towels (or aluminum foil if cover dyes are bleeding) between the textblock & the covers.
Change paper beneath the books and paper towels as they become saturated.
Keep air circulating by using fans. Do not aim fans directly at the wet materials.
Allow books to drain until they are ‘wet’ books.

b. Freezing & Freeze-drying: Freezing wet materials will stabilize them, prevent mold growth and provide time to determine a course of action. Rapid freezing to –15 to -20 degrees F is recommended to minimize damage from ice crystals. Home freezers rarely meet this criterion!

Once frozen, it is best to dry materials by the vacuum freeze-drying method. During vacuum freeze-drying, water from the damaged material sublimates, i.e., passes from a solid state (frozen) to a gaseous state (vapor), bypassing the liquid stage and therefore minimizing damage from inks and dyes running, boards warping & paper cockling. It is important not to place materials into a vacuum freeze-dryer in distorted shape if at all possible, since they tend to emerge from the process in that same shape. If freeze-drying is not possible, the materials must be thawed and air-dried.

c. Packing for Freezing: The Assistant Disaster Recovery Coordinator or designee arranges for freezer space, pallets, hand-trucks, and transport trucks.

Wrap each item in freezer paper or wax paper. This will allow a final sorting before drying if necessary and will prevent the books from freezing together.
Pack items in plastic crates, the sides of which have been lined with cardboard to prevent “imprinting.” If these are not available, use cardboard boxes.
Pack items in the condition in which they are found. Do not attempt to separate books that are stuck together, pack them as one item.
Pack books spine down in a single row from end-to-end of the crate. Books should be packed “snugly” but never tightly: wet books will continue to swell even during the freezing process.
Avoid stacking materials on top of one another. If books are too large to pack spine down, stack them no more than four high in size order beginning with the largest book on the bottom.
Attach a Library ownership tag to each box and assign each box a number. Keep records of each box number, call numbers of each volume or inclusive range and total number of books in each container. Use a portable barcode reader if possible. This information is vital to the subject specialists and the cataloguing department.
If containers are sent to more than one freezer facility, note which container numbers are sent where.
Move the boxes to a local freezer facility or transport to a vacuum freeze-drying facility. Materials should be placed in refrigerated trucks if they cannot be frozen within 48 hrs.


a. Air-drying: Fewer than 500 non-coated paper books with non‑water soluble components.

Cover drying surface with plastic sheeting & absorbent paper (e.g. unprinted newsprint), as needed.
Open book to a shallow angle & interleave approximately every 20 pages with paper towels. Begin by laying the book flat & interleaving at the front of the book, allowing the work surface to support the main weight. When interleaving has reached the approximate center of the textblock, turn the book over and start interleaving from the back.

The book may be left flat until paper towels have absorbed some of the water, about one hour.
Stand book on end (head or tail), slightly fanned.
Change paper beneath the books and interleaving periodically until the book is only “damp”, and then proceed to #3.
Keep air circulating by using fans. Do not aim fans directly at the wet materials.


Cover drying surface with plastic sheeting & absorbent paper (e.g. unprinted newsprint).
Stand damp books on head or tail, slightly fanned. If the cover is damper than the text, place absorbent paper between the boards and book, change them as needed.
Use fans to circulate air to dry the books completely.

3) advice including photograph care from Chippewa County

Freeze Flood-Damaged Photos, Documents, Books

If you want to save photographs, important documents, or books that have been damaged by floodwaters, the first thing to do is get them out of the water. Then, if you don’t have time to care for them immediately, freeze them, an Iowa State University Extension specialist says.

“If other flood cleanup is more pressing, put flood-damaged photos, documents and books in the freezer,” says Lois Warme, extension interior design specialist. “Freezing will delay further damage.”

Ivan Hanthorn, heat of the Preservation Department at the Iowa State University Library, agrees. “Freezing buys you time by stabilizing the situation.”

The important thing is to act quickly, before mildew sets in, Hanthorn says. You have the best chance of saving items that are not mildewed already. Photos, papers and books that still are wet have not yet been attacked by mildew. Mildew doesn’t grow on wet material – it grows on damp material.

If an item already is mildewed and can be replaced, throw it away. If you can’t make that decision now, then freeze the item. Freezing doesn’t kill mildew, but it temporarily stops mildew growth. And, freezing doesn’t dry the item. Freezing simply buys time. Eventually you will have to decide what to do with each item you freeze, Hanthorn says.

How to freeze photos, documents, books

First pick the item up out of the water and hold it while it drains, Hanthorn says. Then place the item in a plastic bag, and stick it in the freezer. If you have several items of approximately the same size – such as file folders or books – you can place them upright in a milk crate or box, separated with paper toweling, butcher paper or wax paper. If you’re freezing books, stand them vertically on their spines. A milk crate is a good choice for this task because it allows air flow around the items. Use a container that won’t become water-logged. Pack the items just tight enough so that they remain upright.

If a book obviously is wet and is still closed, keep it closed, Hanthorn says. Don’t open it or you may destroy the book. Let it drain, then freeze it.

If photos have stuck together and then dried, don’t pull them apart – you could damage the emulsion layer. Get the photos wet again before attempting to separate them, or consult a professional photographer.

After the items you want to save are in the freezer, you can go back to other flood cleanup duties, Hanthorn says. You can leave the items in the freezer, literally, for years. Freezing won’t hurt them. But he suggests that you deal with the items as soon as you can.

When you have time and can decide calmly, review the items you’ve frozen. Decide which items you really want to save and which items you can discard. Later, you can get the items out of the freezer – as many or as few at a time as you like – and dry them.

Drying frozen photos, documents, books

When you’re ready to deal with the items, you may want to contract with a commercial freeze-drying company if you have items of sufficient value and quantity to be worth the expense. Hanthorn is not aware of any commercial freeze-drying companies in Iowa that specialize in library and documentary materials. However, there are companies in other states that offer flood-salvage freeze-drying services.

Or, you can air dry the items yourself. Follow these guidelines:

· Work in an area that doesn’t present more problems. For example, don’t dry the items in a damp basement. As the items thaw, water will drip and conditions will get humid.
· Place wet items on a surface that won’t be damaged by dripping water. Or place items on a surface that has been covered with polyethylene.
· Documents and photos can be hung on a line.
· Stand books on end, fanned open. You may want to place paper towels within each book, every 50 pages or quarter inch. The towels will act as wicks and pull water out of the books.
· You may want to put paper towels underneath the items to absorb water that will drip during thawing. Change the toweling as it get wet.
· Run a fan to circulate air over and around the items as they dry.
· After books feel dry, close them squarely and stack them under a brick. Let them dry another 24 hours. This should help them resume their shape.

It may take two or three days to dry out a photo or document, Hanthorn says, and several days to dry out a book.

After they’ve dried, photos probably will be curled. To uncurl them, you can wash each photo carefully in a photo tray, then put them between clean white blotters under pressure. Photography blotters, which are preferable, may be available at photo supply stores, but any kind of clean white blotter would work. Change blotters as they become damp.

Or, you might want to call a commercial photographer, who may be able to help you depending on the amount of damage to the photo. A photographer may be able to make a new negative from the original photo, and print a new photo for you, Hanthorn says.


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