Usually after a storm like Sandy, conservators get a lot of calls regarding how to dry out or care for damp, wet, or waterlogged books. In this post, MOBIA’s rare book conservator, Clare Manias, offers a few suggestions to recover your documents, photographs, and books safely. If you can’t dry them out yourself, or if there are too many and you are considering getting some outside assistance, at the end of this post there are some suggestions to help you find a recovery service.
The most urgent issue when dealing with wet books and paper, or anything else damaged by flooding, is mold. Mold can be toxic, and can seriously irritate and enflame a person’s lungs. Avoid mold outbreaks especially if you are allergic to mold, have chronic respiratory problems, have diabetes, are taking steroids, or are pregnant. Never handle moldy items without gloves and wear a respirator or mask marked N95. Regular dust masks don’t filter small enough particles to protect you against mold outbreaks.
The most effective way to avoid mold is not to clean it, but to dry the materials and the space. Mold is everywhere and will take advantage of warm and humid environments. An ideal environment is humidity over 50% and temperatures over 70 degrees. Get out the summer fans to circulate the air if you can, but don’t aim them directly at documents or photographs that will blow around the room. Use a dehumidifier if you have one. Keep the lights on if possible and the temperature low (below 70 degrees). Segregate moldy items from ones that are not moldy, to keep mold from spreading.
The next thing to do is prepare a drying surface to accommodate all the photographs, documents, and books you would like to dry. The surface should be rigid like a table and be able to hold the wet materials. Stiff cardboard or window screens will work for photos or documents; wood or Plexiglas would be better for books. They should be up off the floor if possible. Cover the surface with blotting paper, unprinted newsprint, or towels. The room should be well ventilated, cool, and dry to prevent mold growth.
Large amounts of saturated paper, photos, or books might be better sent to be frozen rather than trying to do it yourself all at once. Documents and books can be freeze-dried and photographs can be frozen for later treatment in small batches.
Other supplies you will need are rolls of wax paper to wrap items for freezing, strong cardboard boxes or plastic milk crates (don’t use sealed plastic storage containers or bags, as the sealed environment will promote mold growth), and markers and tape to mark the boxes.
Documents: To air-dry small amounts of damp, unbound paper documents, spread out the papers in a single layer on your prepared surfaces. If the paper cannot be spread in a single layer (because it is stapled together or folded, for example), regularly turn over the documents to ensure even drying. Don’t try to unfold wet paper.
If your documents are in boxes or folders, the box or folder will absorb a lot of the water; remove damp documents from boxes to air dry and discard and replace the boxes and folders.
Don’t try to remove saturated documents from saturated boxes; wrap the box with wax paper and freeze the entire box. If you cannot separate a saturated stack of documents, wrap the entire stack and pack for freeze-drying.
Important documents with soluble media (such as ink jet printed) should be frozen as soon as possible to arrest the loss of information. Always place the item face up; do not blot.
To pack documents for freezing, wrap each stuck-together stack with wax paper, and place in strong cardboard boxes or plastic milk crates and mark boxes with their contents.
Books: Damp (not saturated) books can be air-dried.Smaller ones can be stood up, open, with their pages fanned out, on your prepared surface.Interleave larger books with unprinted paper towels about every 20-30 pages. Change the interleaving when it becomes saturated and flip the book over to promote even drying.
If your books are wet, but you only have a small amount, they can be air dried as well. Wet paper tears easily, so don’t pick them up by the corner or the cover only. Drain out as much water as you can and stand soft cover books up with cardboard to separate them from each other. Fan hardcover books out slightly. Don’t insert interleaving until they are less wet.
But, if you have a large amount of valuable books, they should be packed for freezing as soon as possible.
Books printed on glossy or coated paper will stick together very quickly. If they can’t be replaced, pack for freezing as quickly as possible.
To pack books for freezing, wrap individual books in wax paper and pack in cardboard boxes, spine edge down, in one layer. Don’t forget that wet books are much heavier. Pack books in their present condition. Do not close open books, or open closed books. Wrap books that are stuck together as one item; don’t try to separate them.
Photographs: When prints get wet they tend to stick together because the emulsion layer that contains the image swells and gets sticky. You might be able to separate photos if they are still wet or damp, unless the image sides are stuck together or the photograph is stuck to the glass of a frame or the plastic sheet in an album. If they are, don’t try to pull them apart.
If you have 19th century family photographs printed on metal or glass, or early 20th century albumen prints mounted on thick cardboard, consult with a conservator and don’t try to separate these prints if they are stuck together.
Color or black and white prints and negatives can be rinsed to remove mud and debris and help separate some of the ones that are stuck together. Color prints and negatives can be immersed safely for 30 minutes; black and white prints and negatives can be immersed for 48 hours. Immerse wet photographs (and slides and negatives) in large plastic clean garbage bins or pails filled with clean, cold water. Do not use metal containers as they may react with chemicals in the photographs. Keep the water cold and clean – warm or hot water will permanently damage the emulsion – and periodically agitate the water in the container. Very gently try to pull apart photos that are stuck front to back.
Remove each photograph from the bath by holding the tip of one corner and allowing water to run off. Place the photographs on your prepared surface IMAGE SIDE UP. Some photographs will curl when drying. Consult a photograph conservator to flatten them after they are dry.
Large amounts of wet photographs or photographs (or albums) that are stuck together should be flash frozen. The photographs must be wet to be frozen. To pack photographs for freezing, wrap or interleave stuck-together bundles with wax paper and place into sturdy cardboard boxes. Do not pack the boxes tightly. Contact a freeze-drying service, which will freeze them for you for transport to a conservator.
Do not freeze 19th century prints on metal or glass or cased images – consult a conservator.
For more information, contact a regional conservation center such as:
Northeast Document Conservation Center
100 Brickstone Square
Andover, MA 01810-1494
Disaster Assistance Hotline 978-470-1010
Their website has tons of information on disaster recovery.
To find a Conservator in your area, try the website of the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) and look in the Resource Center. They maintain a database of conservators for books, paper and photographs as well as textiles, paintings and objects. There is lots of good advice about caring for your treasures.
Check the website of your state archives for lists of companies that may be able to help you with your recovery efforts. Any major museum or university library in your area will also likely be able to recommend conservators in your area.
Freeze drying services: There are many companies that offer freeze-drying services. Make sure you are talking to a company that offers recovery services for books, documents and photographs.
For more information regarding treatment of other art collectables, please visit MoMA’s guidelines on immediate response for collections.
- C.M. for MOBIA