Cleaning Up After Water Damage

UPDATED October 31, 2012 by Valerie Hawkins

Q. The recent severe weather has some of our library regulars asking about salvage of wet books.  What can I tell them?

A. I'm going to address your question from two perspectives.  First, what should an individual be doing, and second, what should a library be doing.

The information in "Tips for Salvaging Water Damaged Valuables" by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the Heritage Preservation is designed for individuals.  It cautions that water-damaged books may be fragile careful handling is important. To prevent mold growth, books "should be air dried or kept in a refrigerator or freezer until they can be treated by a professional conservator." Also advised:

  • If the object is still wet, rinse with clear water or a fine hose spray. Clean off dry silt and debris from your belongings with soft brushes or dab with damp cloths. Try not to grind debris into objects; overly energetic cleaning will cause scratching. Dry with a clean, soft cloth. Use plastic or rubber gloves for your own protection.
  • Air dry objects indoors if possible. Sunlight and heat may dry certain materials too quickly, causing splits, warping, and buckling. If possible, remove contents from wet objects and furniture prior to drying. Storing damp items in sealed plastic bags will cause mold to develop. If objects are to be transported in plastic bags, keep bags open and air circulating.
  •  The best way to inhibit the growth of mold and mildew is to reduce humidity. Increase air flow with fans, open windows, air conditioners, and dehumidifiers. Moderate light exposure (open shades, leave basement lights on) can also reduce mold and mildew.

The Heritage Emergency National Task Force has a ten-minute online streaming video, Coping with Water Damage, which may also be helpful.  Handling of and treatment for water-damaged CDs and DVDs can be found in Disaster Response and Planning for Libraries, Third Edition, by Miriam Kahn, recently released by ALA. For a list of resources online, see Disaster Response - Recovery of Library Materials, including Preserving Treasures After a Disaster from the Library of Congress, with its notes and videos on computer hard drives, CDs and DVDs, books, photos, furniture, record albums, and videotapes.


For libraries--which should, of course, have a disaster plan--there are extensive resources available from ALA and other organizations.  Here are some website references to start with:

Library group LYRASIS  and conservation centers across the United States have preservation field service programs available on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. See the list of organizations and their 24/7 phone numbers at LYRASIS Disaster Assistance.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provides Records Emergency Information for Cultural and Historic Institutions.  Links from that page include information on handling wet materials and additional information by media type (photographs and film, books and bound volumes, audio and video tapes, and computer hard drives and CDs/DVDs).

Over the years, the ALA Library has compiled extensive information, including ALA Library Fact Sheet 10 - Disaster Response Bibliography, with additional information on our wiki.  Additional material has been developed by ALA's Washington Office, "Disaster Preparedness and Recovery."

School librarians should be aware of the Beyond Words grant program.

Finally, be on the look out for workshops and seminars, including those from ALA and particularly the Association for Library Collections & Technical Services (ALCTS).

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