How to Salvage Wet/Sooty/Muddy/Dirty Papers, Books or Records


by MJ Davis, Paper Conservator in Private Practice and Lead Trainer, American Institute for Conservation Collections Emergency Response Team

The salvage of paper-based collections is straightforward. There are some basic issues to consider, and decisions to make. What you decide will be based on time, the size and scope of your emergencies, and the resources available to you – both financial and physical. Refer to “Salvaging Wet Artwork” for more of an overview on these topics.

Paper is a non-supporting material, more so when it gets wet. Water is heavy, and trying to lift saturated paper without some support materials will lead to damage. Wet books are problematic, because the saturated text block is very heavy and the text block is usually attached with water-soluble adhesive to the covers, so those parts of the book can be easily separated, often leading to tears and damage. Administrative records are usually not produced on good-quality paper or printed with permanent ink. When wet, many of the inks used on these documents will run and cause staining from one page to another.

An excellent source for help is “Salvage at a Glance,” written by Betty Walsh and produced by the Western Association for Art Conservation. It is available at www.museum-security.org/salvage.html, and can be purchased from the WAAC. Refer to “Supplies for Salvage” for an overview of the salvage process and the materials you will need on hand. And remember: this all depends on the size and scale of the emergency!

1. Insurance

In working with your insurance adjuster, you will need good documentation — photographs and written records of your collections — as he/she will want to know what their pre-event condition was. It’s pretty easy to see whether damage is old or new, so don’t expect to get reimbursed for collections that were previously in poor condition. For example, a print housed for many years in acidic matting materials will most likely have a matburn around the perimeter. If this piece gets wet, you will see water damage, but don’t expect the insurance to pay for removal of the matburn as well.

 If you have to put in an insurance claim for treatment, a conservator will have to produce a technical examination and treatment proposal for you to give to your agent. Expect to pay the conservator for producing these documents, as it takes time to examine the artwork carefully and determine what course of action should be taken.

2. Options for Drying

As you begin salvaging your artwork and records, you will need to decide how to dry out the damaged items. There are four basic ways to do this. The first step, and most important to remember, is that freezing will buy you time and stabilize your collections. 

Again, this all depends on your time, resources and the scope of the emergency. If you have hundreds of things that are damaged and wet, then freeze them and figure out salvage methods later. If you have 50 wet items, then air-dry them or send some things out to be frozen. This is more an art than a science.

a. Freezing:

Wrap objects in paper, wax paper, parchment paper in bundles, in zip-lock bags with paper toweling, or interleave if time permits; then place in freezer. Then proceed to one of the next three steps.

b. Air-drying:

This is the most obvious and immediate way to dry almost any paper item. It’s suitable for drying relatively small numbers of damp or slightly wet materials.

 If you have already frozen items, then take out a bundle or a few items and proceed as follows, knowing that it may take up to two weeks for some things to dry completely:

  • Use fans in your workspace — but only to circulate the air. Don’t have them blowing directly on the drying objects.

  • Have tables or flat space prepared with absorbent materials.

  • Blot wet objects to remove as much moisture as possible.

  • Single leaves can be laid out on tables, floors and other flat surfaces.

  • A clothesline can be strung and durable papers, prints and photos can be hung up by the corner, using plastic clothespins.

  •  Interleave damp to slightly wet books every 10 to 20 pages with paper toweling, and change it often..

  • Flip books from end to end — and continue to fan out pages as you replace interleaving.

Pros: Air-drying requires no special equipment. Cons: It’s extremely labor-intensive, and can require a great deal of space. That’s why it is suitable only for relatively small numbers of materials.

Books will be at least 20 percent bigger when dry, and will require more shelf space. Bindings may need to be replaced.

c. Vacuum freeze-drying: Salvage vendors will have access to vacuum freeze-drying facilities. This process is especially suitable for large numbers of wet books and records. It is a good way to deal with the problems that can’t be successfully air- or freeze-dried (water-soluble inks, watercolors, coated paper).

Objects/artworks must first be frozen, then placed in a vacuum chamber. Air is drawn out of the chamber, and a source of heat is introduced. The chamber is usually -20° F, and the introduced heat brings the temperature up a bit — but still well below 32°, so the artifacts remain frozen throughout the process.

The physical process known as sublimation takes place, in which ice crystals vaporize without melting. This means there is no additional wetting, swelling, stress or distortion beyond what happened before the materials were frozen.

d. Vacuum thermal-drying: Books and records that are slightly to extensively wet can be dried in a vacuum thermal-drying chamber. The vacuum is drawn, heat is introduced, and the materials are dried, theoretically at just above 32°. (This means the materials stay wet while they dry. This method does not sublimate ice into gas, as does vacuum freeze-drying).

Pros: This method is quick and relatively inexpensive. For large numbers of books or documents, vacuum thermal-drying is easier than air-drying.

Cons: Vacuum thermal-drying can cause enormous distortion in books. Expect them to need extensive rebinding, along with expanded shelf space. To lessen these impacts, some companies restrain books with metal plates during the drying process, and this can be quite effective. But regardless, coated papers will stick together. Water-soluble paints, inks and dyes may bleed. And heat accelerates the aging process. 

As a result, this is an acceptable method of drying only for wet records that have no long-term value.

3. First Steps and General Rules for Salvage

a. First steps for salvage:

  • Prepare your salvage area, and make sure it’s secure.

  • Set up floor fans, and prepare lots of tables with absorbent materials.

  • Have a supply of clean water.

  • Set your salvage priorities – wettest vs. driest, one-of-a-kind vs. prints in an edition, lightest vs. heaviest, etc.

  • Review your drying methods: freeze, air-dry, vacuum freeze-dry and/or vacuum thermal-drying.

  • Wear your protective gear (Personal Protection Equipment or PPE) and have hazards ID’d.

b. Rules for wet paper and records:

  • To prevent mold growth, freeze or dry within 48 hours.

  • Don’t take the time to separate stacks of papers. Freeze in bulk, separating stacks with interleaving materials. Later, when you have time and space, you can take a stack out of the freezer and air-dry it.

  • Unframe wet paper documents and artwork. If that’s not possible, at least turn them upside down and removing backing materials.

  • If items are rolled, leave them alone until they are partially dry, then try to manipulate. If they’re fragile, leave them alone.

  • Items with soluble media, running dyes or inks should be isolated from non-damaged items and frozen immediately.

  • Freeze coated papers immediately, then freeze-dry them later. If only a few pages are wet, separate them with wax paper and air-dry.

c. Rules for wet books - Along with the rules above for paper and records, add these for books:

  • Don’t open and close them, or dirt and grime will get inside.

  • Separate books from each other with a wax-paper or freezer-paper book cover, to prevent migration of dyes, dirt or acids from leathers.

  • Pack books — spine-side down, one layer only — into milk crates (pad out the bottom with extra layers of paper, to prevent the crate from imprinting on wet spines) or prepared boxes lined with garbage bags.

  • Books with coated papers must be frozen immediately.

d. Rules for sooty, muddy or dirty paper and records:

  • Don’t touch! Soot, mud and dirt is easily ground into the matrix of paper fibers.

  • Let mud dry before trying to remove.

  • Gently vacuum off soot, mud or dirt, using a piece of fiberglass window screening as an interleaving so the paper won’t get sucked up into the machine.

  • After vacuuming, use a “pet sponge” or “soot sponge” (available at the hardware store) to gently lift soot, mud or dirt residue from the surface.

  • Soot will go everywhere, so remember to clean the back, edges, and insides of everything!

e. Rules for sooty, muddy or dirty books:

Along with following the rules above, don’t open and close books, as soot, mud or dirty will migrate easily to the inside pages.

f. Rules for business records:

The rules above also apply to business records. Remember that air-dried papers are not going to be flat, so storing these documents will require more space in your filing cabinets. You can re-humidify air-dried papers and flatten them between dry blotters under weight, but this is quite time-consuming. If the information is all that you want and the originals are not crucial, simply air-dry or vacuum thermal-dry these documents and photocopy them. 

4. Conservation Treatments

Professional conservation treatments are usually carried out on fine art, special or rare books, and certificates or documents when the damage has compromised the integrity and/or stability of the artifact. For example, an etching that has gotten partially wet, with a tideline resulting, will benefit from a reduction of the stain and the removal of the contamination in the paper deposited by the flood waters. Similarly, a framed watercolor in an archival mat that has gone through a house fire has absorbed moisture because of the high level of humidity in the house. If it is unframed and air-dried, the painting should be fine and will simply need to be rematted.

In deciding whether to have a piece conserved, go back to your priorities. What is the value of this piece to my total collection? What is its monetary value, its emotional value? Is this a unique piece, a duplicate or one of several in an edition? Answering some of these questions may help you make your decision.

A conservator’s code of ethics requires them to be the advocate for the artwork, in much the same way that a doctor advocates for the patient. A trained conservator will spell out your options for treatment. Treatment needs are broken into four categories:

  1. If the piece is severely torn and bits are going to be lost in moving it or trying to store it, then it will be a high treatment priority.

  2. If the artwork has a few small tears and is a bit dirty and rumpled, but can be stored safely, then treatment may be deferred but should be done in the near future.

  3. If damage such as staining has compromised the overall aesthetics of the artwork, but the work can be safely stored, then treatment becomes an option.

  4. The artwork is in good condition and needs no work. 

Conservators can also work within a budget. A full treatment might cost several hundred dollars — but if you only have $200 to put toward this project, then ask what can be done for your budget. 

For advice on how to choose a conservator, visit the American Institute for Conservation’s website, www.conservation-us.org, and go to Selecting a Conservator.

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