Tips for Drying Books or Paper Collections Damaged by Water

This article will provide tips for mitigating damage by water to maps, documents, posters, letters, stamps and other paper collections. Following these tips won’t guarantee recovery of all items, but will should help you minimize the damage. Obviously the sooner you can begin the drying process the better. In 2014, the state of Washington experienced flooding in their archive and records center, but all of the documents and collections were able to be restored and saved from the water damage due to quick remediation procedures.

Note: Safety First!

Remember the importance of wearing the proper coverings for your eyes, arms and hands, especially when dealing with damaged items due to flooding where waters could have been contaminated. Always be sure the environment you are working in is safe before trying to dry your collection. If there is any question about this be sure to call a certified damage restoration expert. If the collection has been removed from the environment, you may still be dealing with mold (see tips for handling mold below).

Some precautions you may want to consider are:

  • Safety glasses.
  • Disposable gloves.
  • Shirts with extended sleeves.
  • Masks (optional)

CAUTION: Mold can be extremely dangerous, depending on the type and extent of the growth. If dealing with mold, follow these recommendations carefully:

  • Use a respirator to protect the lungs.
  • Use a vacuum to suck dry mold spores away from you.
  • When finished, wash hands and dispose of gloves properly.
  • See a doctor if you feel any health effects from the handling of mold.
Using a Respirator
If dealing with mold, keep in mind that some species of mold are toxic and should only be dealt with while wearing a respirator. You may want to consider an N-95 respirator. These can be purchased at many home improvement centers. Go to this EPA Page for more information.

Drying Methods to Employ for documents and other paper items:

  • Fans: Circulate the air with the use of fans. Avoid pointing the fan(s) in the same direction as the item(s) you’re trying to dry. You simply want to keep the air moving at a good rate in order to maximize the drying process.
  • Blotting: When removing excess water from your paper documents, remember to blot. Never attempt to wipe it dry. Do not blot over ink that has been hand written or if the paper is too delicate. When blotting, use a new sponge that is clean, paper (not newspaper) or very absorbent towels.
  • Screens: Window screen material can be found at any hardware store. You can also use the screens from your own windows if they’re clean and not rusty. Simply stack them in layers, using wooden blocks, pieces of board, cinder blocks or bricks to separate each section of screen. This will allow the air to circulate through, reaching the surface of both sides of the paper or item.
  • Absorbent Material: If you don’t have access to screens, you can dry your items on a hard surface, but first cover the surface with materials that absorb moisture. You will need to replace the absorbing material frequently as to ensure the best drying environment.
  • Paper Handling: CAUTION: Handle damp paper with great care as it will be heavy and weak, subject to tearing easily. It is important that it is supported by the work surface.

Drying Method to Employ for items in a frame:

  • First, flip the frame over, placing the glass down.
  • Second, pull off the backing and remove everything in the frame, except the item you’re trying to save. Then carefully lift the item out of the frame and place it where it can be air-dried.
  • CAUTION: Do not remove the item if it is stuck to the glass. This may cause irreversible damage. The item will have to be dried, lying on top of the glass. Once dried, if still adhering to the surface of the glass, it can be carefully and slowly lifted using a flat tool such as a plastic putty knife.

Drying Methods to Employ for Books:

  • Set books on their tops or bottoms and open them up like a fan. Avoid standing opened books on the side edges.
  • Choose the driest side to set the book on first, then as it dries, rotate it every couple of hours or so.
  • Wax paper works wonderfully well when placed in between the covers of the book and the pages next to them. Make sure the wax paper is slightly larger than the size of the cover itself. Replace often to ensure a more speedy drying of the book.
  • As the book dries, it will get to a point where it still feels cool, but is no longer damp. At this point, close the book, place it on a surface that’s solid and add a small weight to the top to keep the pages as flat as possible. Remember to check often, so mold doesn’t begin to grow between the book’s pages.

Dealing with Mold Growth on Your Collection

It is important to understand the difference between active mold and dormant mold when and how to handle each. Active mold appears slimy and often fuzzy as though hair is growing out of it. Dormant mold is no longer producing spores or spreading and is characterized by a dry powdery appearance.

  • If your item has active mold growing on it, do not try to wipe it clean or get rid of the mold in any way. Exposing the mold to sunlight and fresh air should speed up the drying process of the mold, making it safer to remove. CAUTION: This may lead to some damage from the sun, so only leave it exposed for short periods of time to avoid fading. If the item looks as though it will easily fade, find a place to dry the mold away from direct sunlight.
  • It’s always helpful to control the humidity inside the room where you’re attempting to dry your items. Try to keep it humidity levels below 50%. You may need to use a dehumidifier to bring it down to a safe percentage. Lowering your room temperature into the mid 60 degree range should help as well.
  • When the mold has changed from active to dormant, then you can safely remove the mold by placing the hose of a vacuum cleaner nearby as you brush the mold off with a soft brush. Remove the vacuum bag and dispose of it immediately and make sure you leave the brushes clean of the mold as well.
  • Most importantly, remember to follow the proper rules of safety discussed above when dealing with mold. Mold spores can cause a great deal of damage.

Should You Hire a Professional Conservator?

It’s extremely important that you weigh the importance of the items that have been damaged by water. Depending on the historic, sentimental or monetary value of your damaged items you may want to consider employing a professional conservator, who will have experience dealing with the restoration of water damaged collections. With a trained eye they will be able to assess what actions are best with each item as well as be expert in mitigating any mold issues.

Contact information for professional conservators in your area can be found by contacting:

The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC)
1156 15th Street, NW
Suite 320
Washington D.C. 20005-1714
Phone: (202) 452-9545
Fax: (202) 452-9328