Salvage of Water Damaged Library Materials - part 6


The aisles between stacks and main passageways will probably be strewn with sodden materials. These must be removed first, separately, by human chain, in the exact condition in which they are found. Open books will be greatly swollen, but no attempt should be made to close them. Closing them will cause further damage by tearing the leaves, since paper will not slide when wet. Instead, books should be passed undisturbed to an adjacent dry area where an awaiting team may pack them without disturbing their shape. This particular type of material must not be packed tightly but should be packed flat in boxes and separated with at least one layer of freezer paper and one sheet of 1/2" polystyrene between each open book.

The packing team should have approximately the same number of people as the team which passes the damaged material to them. This will avoid bottlenecks and stacking materials on the floor awaiting packing. If a sufficient number of people and conveyor belts are available, the most efficient place to pack damaged materials will be on site. Teams will have to be organized to assemble packing materials and supply them to the packers in a smooth flow. Use of a second human chain or conveyor will reduce bottlenecks and the likelihood of incoming supplies interfering with the flow of packed materials being passed out of the building. After the isles have been completely cleared, the main work of recovery can begin. Hopefully, a decision will have been made as to which material to remove first: the wettest or the ones in the best condition. As stated earlier, if the majority is only damp and in relatively sound condition, these could be removed first and more rapidly than other materials. In these circumstances de-shelving and packing will be a relative quick operation and will help to establish a smooth worker flow. As each line of shelves is emptied, an assistant should code each box and record the box number and its general contents in a notebook. The contents of archival storage boxes are unlikely to be saturated with water if they were previously positioned close together. However, since certain types of boxes have a corrugated inside layer, they may be very wet, even though the major portion of the contents is only damp. In such cases, it is best to repack the contents in new boxes or in plastic milk crates. This will not only make each unit lighter to lift and prevent the collapse of a wet box but will also speed the drying process. When repacking it is important that the new boxes be properly identified.


If the wettest materials were removed first the drier material will usually be above the first four or five shelves and packed closely together. On no account should this third category be separated or spaced out during the earlier salvage efforts. Closely packed materials will not readily develop mold internally.

However, since these will have been in a very humid atmosphere for, maybe several days, it is likely that some mold will have developed on the outer edges of bindings and boxes. This is less like to occur if, during the evacuation of the wettest materials every effort had been made to reduce temperatures and humidity levels and establish a good air flow.

There may be books and box files in such good condition that they need not be sent to freezing facilities but can be dried in ambient conditions. On no account however should the drying be attempted in the location in which they were found because the environment will be totally unsuitable. They should instead be removed to a controlled environment while shelves, wall, floors, and ceilings are sterilized and necessary maintenance work is being done to return the site to its normal condition. If moved, materials should be stacked with air spaces between them provided that the drying area has a good circulation of air, together with air-conditioning and dehumidification. If air-conditioning is not available, fans and dehumidifiers should be used to keep air moving and to extract moisture from the area. The relative humidity of a drying area is no guide to the actual moisture content of cellulose materials. The normal water content of paper is between 5 and 7 percent by weight. Materials which feel relatively dry to the touch as they come out of a humid, flood-damaged area, may actually contain moisture from above 10 to 20 percent.

Heat is one of the best means of drying, but since it increases the risk of mold development on humid books and documents, it should be used only if a good circulation of air and dehumidification can be established. Hygrothermographs for recording temperature and relative humidity should be installed to monitor the general area, and moisture-content meters used to measure the moisture in the materials themselves.


The safest time to clean materials is after they have been dried. If water-damage is the result of a river flood then the following might, under certain circumstances, be considered. The Florence experience demonstrated that the best time to remove mud was after the books were dry. However some books did benefit from partial cleaning in the wet state.

If adequate assistance is available, mud deposits on books which will not be further damaged by water may be washed off in clean, running water. Closed books may be held, one at a time, under water and the excess mud removed with a hose connected to a fine spray head. Similar washing should not be attempted with opened volumes, manuscripts, art on paper, or photographs.

Rubbing and brushing should be avoided, and no effort be made to remove oil stains. Anything which is hard to remove is better left until after drying, when techniques for removal can be worked out during the restoration stage. In some cases, printed books bound in cloth or paper can be left immersed in clean running water for as long as two weeks. Although this should be avoided if possible, it is preferable when the only alternative is leaving such books in warm, humid air while awaiting attention.


A more thorough washing procedure, intended to remove as much mud and slime as possible from books, requires six to eight tanks big enough to accommodate the largest volumes in the collection. This process is obviously wet and messy and needs to be set up outdoors in fair weather or in an area fitted out to use and remove large quantities of water. Since large quantities of water are required, the area will be wet and dirty throughout the operation, and good drainage is therefore essential.

Any rustproof receptacles may be used if they are large enough, but plastic garbage cans (20 or 30 gallons) are recommended. Each can should be equipped with a hose to provide low-pressure, continuous water flow to the bottom so that dirty water, as it overflows the rim, will be constantly replaced by fresh. Each hose should be fastened securely to prevent damage to the books being washed. Wooden duck-boards, rubber boots, gloves and aprons are recommended for the protection of workers.

Keeping a book tightly closed, a worker should immerse one book at a time in the first can and remove as much mud as possible by gentle agitation under the water. Workers should not use brushes and or any tool which would cause an aggressive rubbing action. Books should be passed from one can to the next and the same operations repeated until most of the mud has been removed. At the last can, books should be rinsed by spraying them gently with a fine stream of water. No effort should be made to remove mud which continues to cling after sponging under water. This is much better done when the books are dry.

Finally, excess water can be squeezed from books with hands pressure; mechanical presses should never be used. It must be emphasized that the above procedure should be attempted only by a carefully instructed team and in a properly fitted-out area. If there is any doubt about the ability of the team to follow directions, washing should not be attempted. There are many classes of books which should not be washed under any circumstances, and it is therefore imperative to have the advice of an experienced book conservator who can recognize such materials and who understands their treatment requirements.


The most generally accepted method of stabilizing water-damaged library and archival materials before they are dried is by freezing and storing at low temperatures. This buys time in which to plan and organize the steps needed to dry the material and to prepare a rehabilitation site and the building for return of the collections after drying. Freezing provides the means for storing water damaged material safely and for an indefinite period of time in similar physical condition in which they were found, preventing further deterioration by water and mold while awaiting treatment.

Freezing is not a drying method, nor can it be expected to kill mold spores, but it is highly effective in controlling mold growth by inducing a dormant state in the spores. If mold damaged material is frozen it is important that the drying method chosen must prevent mold spore activity during the drying process. For this reason it is important to segregate such material during removal and packing operations.

Stabilization by freezing also provides important advantages when it is not possible to immediately assess the value of the damaged materials or to determine which items can or cannot be replaced. In other words, stabilization gives time in which to estimate recovery costs, to prepare adequate environmental storage conditions, and to restore the building. In some cases, it may be necessary to restore or rebuild the original facilities - a process which can require a long period of time.

Had freezing technique been used after the catastrophic Florence flood in 1966, thousands of additional volumes could have been saved completely or would have suffered significantly less damage. The Florentine libraries which sustained the greatest losses contained mostly 19th and 20th-century materials. In these collections, losses were heaviest among books printed on coated stock, whose leaves stuck together during drying and could not be separated afterward. These losses could have been largely prevented if the materials had been frozen while wet, and if drying methods now known had been used to prevent adhesion of the leaves.

The effect upon freezing water soaked volumes which have lost their shape or have had their binding structures damaged by immersion, will be to slightly increase the thickness of volumes by the physical action of ice crystals, but this additional increase in thickness has been found to contribute no significant problems to already damaged books. Studies conducted by the Research and Testing Office of the Library of Congress have uncovered no evidence of any damage to cellulosic and proteinaceous materials caused solely by the action of freezing.

Freezing as a salvage method has other advantages. It can stabilize water-soluble materials such as inks, dyes, and water stains etc. which would otherwise spread by wicking action if they were dried from the wet state by conventional drying methods. Freezing provides the means by which water-soluble compounds will remain stable during a freeze-drying process which involves the removal of water by sublimation. This is the only known drying method capable of drying without further spreading of water soluble compounds, provided that the frozen state of the material is maintained before and throughout the drying process.

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