Disaster Recovery

Disaster Recovery Services in Texas

How to Salvage Your Paper Materials After a Disaster

Information gathered from, and parts directly taken from, “Recovery from a Disaster — Salvaging Your Collection Materials,” by Bonnie Parr

The following are steps to take after your paper art or documents, including books, have been severely compromised. They are basic guidelines; if you do not feel comfortable completing any of these steps, contact a conservator or disaster recovery service. Also remember that mold is dangerous not only to paper, but to humans and pets, so try to limit your exposure to molded materials and wear protective gear.

After a disaster during which your paper materials were damaged by water, fire, or mold, assume the materials are very fragile. Provide support when moving damaged paper materials.

Fire Damage

Any surviving materials after a fire may be salvageable, depending on their location in relation to the fire and the extent of damage. Items charred on the outside, such as book covers and boxes, may have been of sufficient thickness to protect their contents from burning. Items not directly burned will like;y be covered in soot and ash. Any items exposed to the heat of a fire will be very dry and brittle.
To clean surviving materials, use a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter and a control for adjusting suction. Vacuuming at low suction power is safer for removing dirt and soot from fragile paper. Place a square of cheesecloth over the end of the vacuum nozzle to catch any errant pieces of paper or book that accidentally detach during cleaning. Because soot and ash can easily embed into paper materials, don’t allow the vacuum nozzle to touch the damaged item. Rather, hold the nozzle slightly above the item as it is being cleaned.
For more thorough soot and ash removal, use a soot-cleaning sponge. Dab, but do not rub, the sponge on areas to be cleaned. As the sponge accumulates soot and ash, periodically trim off its dirty surface to expose a clean edge.

Water Damage

All wet paper materials will need to be dried out. The three most common drying options for salvaging water-damaged collections are air drying, freezing, and freeze drying/vacuum freeze drying.

Air Drying

Air drying is the best method when there are small quantities of items to dry and the items are damp or slightly wet. It is effective for most types of library materials and, because it is usually done in-house, the damaged materials are still accessible for use. The drawback to this method is that it is labor-intensive and requires a lot of space and supplies.


Freezing is appropriate when there are moderate to large quantities of materials to dry. Freezing wet materials prevents, but does not kill, mold and “buys time” to gather resources and make arrangements for the salvage operation. It requires access to freezer space and packing/interleaving supplies.

Freeze Drying/Vacuum freeze drying

Freeze drying/vacuum freeze drying is the most efficient method for drying large quantities of material. It requires prior arrangements wit a vendor for freezing services or space, arrangement of transport of the materials to the vendor, and packing/interleaving supplies. The cost of using a vendor is offset by the savings in staff time and resources that would have been used for an in-house salvaging operation.

How to Dry Wet Documents

  1. Remove wet papers from enclosures, encapsulations, mats, or frames.

  2. Freeze documents that have blurry-looking inks. These inks are likely soluble in wet conditions. Freezing will halt further bleeding of the inks.

  3. To pack large quantities of documents for freezing, wrap wax paper or freezer paper around intact manuscript boxes or stacks of folders or documents. Limit stacks to no more than 2 inches thick.

  4. To air dry a documents, lay it flat on absorbent material, change out the absorbent material when it gets wet, and turn over the document at intervals.

  5. For items with water-soluble media, dry them media-side up.

  6. For items with coated paper, it is important to separate the sheets while they are still wet to prevent them from sticking together. To separate the sheets, press a piece of polyester film on top of the stack and then carefully peel the film off with the top sheet attached. The sheet can then be air dried on top of the polyester film or sandwiched between two pieces of non-woven polyester fabric, like interfacing material. Repeat the process to separate the rest of the document sheets. For a document in good condition, an alternative method of air drying is to hand it on a line to dry vertically using plastic clothespins. If needed, sandwich the document between two sheets of polyester fabric for extra support.

How to Dry Wet Books

  1. Remove book jackets and plastic covers to speed drying and prevent mold growth on the covers.

  2. If cleaning is necessary, hold the book tightly closed, dip it in clean water, gently squeeze the book to remove excess water, and wrap it to freeze or interleave to air dry.

  3. To pack for freezing, wrap wax paper or freezer paper around the outside of the book. If transporting to a freezer, place the wrapped book spine down in a waterproof box (or a cardboard box lined with plastic). To prevent damage from crushing, pack only one layer of books in a box.

  4. To air dry a damp book, stand or support the book upright on absorbent material (blotting paper, paper towels, butcher paper, or cloth towels) and fan the pages open. Turn the book over every 2-3 hours.

  5. For slightly wet books with water damage confined to the edges, or for oversize books, place blotting paper inside the covers, interleave every 25 pages or so with absorbent material, and stand the book upright on absorbent material. To prevent stress on the binding, interleave no more than a third of the book thickness. Change the absorbent materials as they become wet and turn over the book at intervals.

  6. Always check for mold growth during the drying process. When the book is mostly dry but still cool to the touch, lay it flat, gently reshape the book block if needed, and place a light weight on top to prevent the covers from warping while the book finished drying.

  7. For books with coated paper that are damp or slightly wet, every page must be interleaved. Wet coated pages will stick together and cannot be separated without tearing apart if allowed to dry without interleaving. It is better to freeze this type of book or send it to a freeze drying facility.

  8. Books with leather or vellum covers are vulnerable to distortion and are very susceptible to mold when wet. They should be frozen as soon as possible, until arrangements can be made for drying them.


See our page about mold and paper here.