Salvage of Water Damaged Library Materials - part 3


Coated papers are the most vulnerable to complete loss and should not be permitted to begin drying until each volume can be dealt with under carefully controlled conditions. The period between removal and freezing is critical. It may be necessary to re-wet them with clean cold water until they can be frozen. During the aftermath of the Corning Museum Library river flood of 1972, it was found that the highest percentage of water damaged books were printed on coated stock papers and that when they were frozen in the wet state most were dried successfully by freeze-drying.


Archival box files often fare better than book material because their boxes are made of porous board stock which can be expected to absorb most of the water, protecting the contents inside. This would not be the case of course if they were completely immersed under water for many hours. During recovery, the contents of each box should be carefully inspected and the box replaced if it is water saturated. Failure to do so will increase the risk of physical damage as boxes collapse from pressure during recovery, shipment and cold storage.


Where water damage has resulted from fire-fighting measures, cooperation with the fire marshal, and health and safety officials is vital for a realistic appraisal of the feasibility of a safe salvage effort. Fire officers and safety personnel will decide when a damaged building is safe to enter. In some cases, areas involved in a fire may require a week or longer before they are cool and safe enough to enter. Other areas may be under investigation when arson is suspected. There may be parts of a collection that can be identified early in the salvage planning effort as being especially vulnerable to destruction unless they receive attention within a few hours after the fire has abated. If the fire marshal appreciates such needs, he may be able to provide means of special access to these areas even when other parts of the building remain hazardous.

Perhaps the most important and difficult decision to make after an assessment of damage has been made, is whether to remove the wettest materials first or to concentrate on those that are only partially wet or damp. If the majority are in the latter category the best course may be to recover these first since they may develop mold if they are left in dank and humid conditions while the wettest material is removed. A balance must be struck between the reduction of moisture content in the affected areas and the time involved for the safe removal of the majority of the collections in the best condition. To remove the wettest material first will obviously lower the moisture content, but it is often the case that this can be difficult and time consuming owing to the fact that shelves become jammed with swollen wet books and boxes that may require special equipment to free them. The aim is always to recover the majority of the collection in the best condition to avoid additional harm and costs brought about by post-disaster environmental damage.

Once all entrances and aisles have been cleared, in addition to the above considerations, the most important collections, including rare materials and those of permanent research value, should be given priority unless other material would be more severely damaged by prolonged exposure to water. Examples of the latter are books printed on paper of types widely produced between 1880 and 1946, now brittle or semi-brittle. However, materials in this category which can be replaced should be left until last.


Salvage operations must be planned so that the environment of water damaged areas can be stabilized and controlled both before and during the removal of the materials. In warm, humid weather, mold growth may be expected to appear in a water-damaged area within 48 hours. In any weather, mold can be expected to appear within 48 hours in poorly ventilated areas made warm and humid by recent fire in adjacent parts of the building. For this reason, every effort should be made to reduce high humidities and temperatures and vent the areas as soon as the water has receded or been pumped out. Water-soaked materials must be kept as cool as possible by every means available and be provided with good air circulation until they can be stabilized. To leave such materials more than 48 hours in temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity above 60 percent without good air circulation will almost certainly result in heavy mold growth and lead to high recovery and restoration costs.

Damaged most by these conditions are volumes printed on coated stock and such highly proteinaceous materials as leather and vellum bindings. Starch-impregnated cloths, glues, adhesives, and starch pastes are affected to a somewhat lesser degree. As long as books are tightly shelved, mold may develop only on the outer edges of the bindings. Thus no attempt should be made, in these conditions, to separate books and fan them open.

As a general rule, damp books located in warm and humid areas without ventilation will be subject to rapid mold growth. As they begin to dry, both the bindings and the edges of books will be quickly attacked by mold. Archival files which have not been disturbed will not be attacked so quickly by mold. A different problem exists for damp books printed on coated stock, since if they are allowed to begin to dry out in this condition, the leaves will quickly become permanently fused together.


Weather is often the critical factor in determining what course of action to take after any flood or fire in which archive and library materials are damaged. When it is hot and humid, salvage must be initiated with a minimum of delay to prevent or control the growth of mold. When the weather is cold, more time may be taken to plan salvage operations and experiment with various reclamation procedures.

The first step is to establish the nature and degree of damage. Once an assessment of the damage has been made, firm plans and priorities for salvage can be drawn up. These plans should include a determination of the special facilities, equipment and personnel required. Overcautious, unrealistic, or inadequate appraisals of damage can result in the loss of valuable materials as well as confusion during all phases of the recovery operation. Speed is of the utmost importance, but not at the expense of careful planning which must be aimed at carrying out the most appropriate, safe and efficient salvage procedure within the circumstances prevailing. An efficient record keeping system is a must. Inventory of call numbers, shelf location and packing box numbers will help make the task of receiving collections returned after drying so that their original shelf locations can be identified, as efficient as possible.

Maintaining a detailed photographic and written record of all stages in the recovery operation is an essential, but often overlooked task which will aid the process of insurance claims and demonstrate the condition of the material before it is frozen and dried. We have found that on receiving materials back from a drying process, some administrators are shocked by the appearance of distorted material, believing perhaps that the condition should be much better, or be somewhat restored! The photographic record can be a very helpful reminder that distortion is mostly the result of the initial water damage and not necessarily the result of the drying process. The photographic record should provide key evidence for the reasons and nature of additional damage resulting from any part of the recovery process.

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