Water Damage | Saving Wet & Water Damaged Books


water damage
Niagara Falls, from an old sepia stereograph, c.1920.


There are many ways that books, old and new, can become damaged, often permanently: neglect, insects, too much sunlight, molds, general mishandling, and a host of other perils. Yet perhaps the greatest threat to these artifacts—other than fire and theft—is water damage. Our recent Horror Story contest (click here to view) put this fact front and center, as most of the WORST horror stories involved…yup, you guessed it…WATER!


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Yikes! Don’t let this happen to YOU!!!


More often than not, old books are stored out-of-sight and out-of-mind in household basements and attics. These are two of the worst locations for such storage, as wild fluctuations in temperature and humidity can cause damage to fragile books. Perhaps more importantly, attics are susceptible to leaky roofs, while basement dangers include leaky water heaters and broken water pipes as well as the possibility of naturally occurring floods in some locations.

While preventing potential problems before they happen is always preferred, as “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” problems involving water damage do occur. If this happens to you and your books, please consider the following procedures.



Water Damage Affecting Old Books

Whether its rain coming in through a leaky roof, or flooding when a water pipe bursts or a water heater leaks, the following are some recommended steps for rehabilitating your damp or soggy volumes.

Quick Note: If you have particularly valuable books (monitarily or sentimentally), you may wish to consult a trained conservator before you attempt to dry your books yourself. Also worth noting, the following suggestions are aimed at drying books that were printed on “uncoated” paper, as “coated” paper—often used in picture books and such—usually have a thin clay coating that requires a different set of approaches.


Damp Books

– If your book is only “damp,” stand the book upside down (top down) and fan the pages, supporting the book if necessary with bookends or unopened cans of food (take the labels off the cans just in case they are not colorfast, as the inks used to print the labels might run and stain your book). Turn the book over every few hours to dry its edges, and re-fan the pages at the same time. When the book starts to feel dry to the touch, place a hand towel or layers of paper towels under and on top of the book to protect its covers and place it under a piece of plastic sheeting or a covered board with evenly-distributed weight on top such as that afforded by a brick (available at larger hardware or home improvement stores) or heavy canned goods. This will reduce the risk of the book becoming totally distorted or warped as the drying process continues. Place a fan in the room to keep the air circulating, but do not aim the fan directly at the book. Check the book each day to monitor progress until the dampness dissipates completely.



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Photograph of what happened to our recent HORROR STORY “winner.” Click here to view.


Wet Books

– Any book that has been soaked more than halfway through should have a chance to “drain” before being dried any further. To accomplish this, place the top edge of the book upright on a cloth or layers of paper towels. A small piece of sponge should be placed under one end of the book’s edge to keep it tilted so that the water drains through the edge of the book and not through all of the pages. Keep the book covers open, but do not fan the pages during this step of the process.

– Once the book has “drained” and begins to dry a bit, interleave the pages with paper towels or blotting paper (available at a number of art supply stores) that extend 1/2″ to 1″ beyond the edge of the pages (except at the edge the book is standing on). These interleaving sheets should be placed every 10-20 pages, making sure that the added thickness created does not stress the binding. At this point open the covers and stand the book up on a few paper towels or a cloth and let it “rest” while the absorbent interleaving material does its thing. Change these interleaving sheets once they become wet, and place the new sheets elsewhere in the book to speed the drying process. Repeat this process a few times, and turn the book over each time you change the interleaving material in order to let the edges dry. When the book feels dry to the touch, remove the interleaving sheets, reshape the binding to make it “square” and, as above, cover it with a cloth or paper towels and place it under a sheet of plastic or a fabric covered board with evenly distributed weight on top. Also as mentioned above, place a fan in the room to circulate air around the book without pointing the fan directly at the book.


In the case of both damp books and wet books, the drying procedures described above may take several days or longer, depending on the size and thickness of the book. Yet “patience is a virtue,” as they say. While following all of these procedures should help you restore a damp or wet book, it is a good idea to continue to check for mold growth on a regular basis. If mold does appear, contact a preservation specialist.


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48 Hours

– If you don’t think you can begin the drying processes mentioned above within 48 hours (see clock, above), or you have a number of books that need to be dried, or you have a particulary valuable book that should be seen by a conservator and thus can’t be addressed immediately, consider freezing your book(s). Mold starts to set in after 48 hours, so this time frame is rather important. Freezing a book may seem strange, but just as meat experiences freezer burn and loses a great deal of moisture, books can be frozen to rid them of excess water and slow further damage until a more complete drying process can begin.

– Gently blot as much excess moisture from the cover or internal pages as you can with good quality paper towels, and then place a piece of paper towel slightly larger than the book’s pages between each cover and its adjoining page. Wrap the book in a few pieces of wax paper and let it freeze overnight. By morning there should be a thin layer of ice on the interior side of the wax paper that can now be opened and brushed away. This often constitutes a significant portion of the moisture that previously soaked the pages. Rewrap the book in fresh wax paper and place the book back in the freezer until you can get in touch with a trained professional, as he or she will be able to walk you through the next steps from there.



Practices to Prevent Water Damage to Books


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Books and photo albums (and everything else!) can benefit from having multiple layers of archival protection. Just make sure to let such items “breathe” by not completely sealing your bags or enclosures. (Please click on images for more information.)


To prevent water damage to your books in the first place, never store them in attics or basements, as mentioned above. With that said, you can also add a layer or two of preventive protection by placing your valuable books, photo albums or other papers and artifacts in archival polyethylene bags before placing them in acid-free boxes or a water-resistant Coroplast box (see below). You never know when this extra layer of protection will come in handy!



water damage
The Flip-Top Record Storage Box comes in two materials, including this Coroplast version. Coroplast is a chemically inert, acid-free and additive-free material made of a durable extruded polypropylene that is water-repellent and great for use where moisture could cause problems. You can store a number of different sized books in this easy-to-carry archival storage carton. (Please click on image for more information.)


On a final note, should water damage occur to your books, heirlooms or collectibles, always know when YOU can attempt to mitigate the problem and when it’s time to call in the trained professionals. And, as always, if you have a question on anything related to your family archives, photographs, art, or various collections, please do not hesitate to contact us at Archival Methods. We’re always there to help!