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Preserving damaged books and photos


Preserving damaged books and photos. Photo used under Creative Comons license from FLickr user benchilada.

May 29, 2014 – This time of year, we're aware of natural disasters like hurricanes and tornados and the damage they can do to our historical documents, books, and family photos. But it doesn't take a natural disaster to affect these documents; a broken pipe or a window left open during a summer storm can be just as detrimental.

Depending on the extent of damage, you can restore many of the materials yourself without having to resort to the expense of a professional conservator. Here are some basic tips for dealing with your water or fire-damaged papers and memorabilia.


  • Wet books are fragile. Always handle gently to prevent pages from tearing and covers from separating from spines. Remove materials to a room that was not affected by your water disaster. Place dehumidifiers and fans in the room and open the windows (but only if it's cool and dry outside) to reduce humidity and promote drying. Air-dry books and papers indoors if possible, since rapid drying from sunlight can cause warping or buckling in covers and pages.
  • Never scrub dirt or mud off of wet books or other materials. Scrubbing will grind in the dirt and embed it into the fibers of the paper, which complicates cleaning later and might also tear the paper. When dealing with dirty or muddy are materials, wait until the book has dried and then brush it off with a soft cloth or brush.
  • Fully saturated books should be dried within 48 to 72 hours to prevent the onset of mold and mildew. Equally important is to reduce the swelling of the spine and cover and the to minimize warping of pages. Begin air drying immediately. Lay fully saturated books on absorbent paper (paper towels are best) to soak up the water. If the spine is sturdy enough, place the book upright, fan the leaves of the book open, to increase the surface drying area, and interleave the pages with paper towels (every fifty pages or so). Replace the interleaving materials as they become soaked. To ensure that the cover won't sag, place the books on their tails (the bottom edge, the most obvious way to place a book). After a time, place them on their heads and keep reversing the position until the book is dry. To prevent damage to the spine, never stand a book on the front edge (horizontal to the spine).
  • Books that are only a little wet, around the edges or just the bottom of the pages, can be placed upright, fanned, and air-dried. Reverse the book from tail to head if you think the cover could sag.
  • If there are too many books to deal with immediately following your disaster, consider placing them in your home freezer. Freezing will keep swelling and distortion to a minimum while giving you time to make decisions about your materials. Loosely wrap books in freezer paper and place upright in your home freezer. Later, when you have time to deal remove them from the freezer a few at a time and follow the instructions above. It's best to freeze only those books that have been fully saturated, not those that were minimally affected by water damage.
  • Coated or glossy papers, like those in most magazines or in art and photography books, will stick together when wet. If the papers are just slightly wet they can be air dried; interleave every page with paper towels to prevent the pages from sticking. Fully saturated books with coated paper should be frozen and then professionally vacuum freeze-dried. Unless these items have great monetary or sentimental value, it might be best to just discard all coated paper materials if they become wet.
  • If mold develops on your books, plan to immediately air-dry them, even if the pages of the book are dry. Active mold is fuzzy or slimy and will have a distinctive moldy smell. Dry out active mold using the techniques for drying books described above.
  • Once the mold has dried (dry mold is powdery) you can brush it off with a clean, soft cloth or brush. Never place a book with active mold back into your collection; it will easily spread to your other books, especially if the books are stored in an environment that is not cool and dry.
  • Only trained conservators and paper restorers should attempt to use disinfectants on books. Avoid bleach, detergent, or adhesive tapes at any time on affected materials at any point in your cleanup. Never place a wet book in a sealed plastic bag; this will promote mold.
  • Once books are fully dried they can be laid flat and pressed with weights. If the book has not returned to its former condition, and you consider it to be valuable, you might want to hire a professional conservator.
  • Usually books that are affected by fire damage are beyond salvage, but check carefully to determine whether pages are charred or just covered with soot. If there is soot on the item then use a clean cloth to gently wipe it off, stroking away from the spine. You can deodorize the materials by placing bowls of baking soda near the book (preferably in a small enclosed area). Do not apply baking soda directly on the books.

Papers, maps, and posters

  • Like fully saturated books, handle all wet individual sheets of paper gently. Blot excess water off of the documents. Do not attempt to separate the individual items while still wet.
  • Manuscript pages can be laid on clean blotting paper and air-dried. If available, lay wet pages on clean window screens to increase air circulation to both sides of the paper.
  • When items are fully dried, place them between sheets of clean newsprint (available at art and office supply stores) and put a light weight on them to flatten damaged paper.


  • The fate of photographs is severely jeopardized when they come in contact with water. Water quickly softens the emulsion on photographs, often irreversibly affecting the image. Avoid touching the surface prints and negatives as much as possible. As with books, always place boxes with photographs on high shelves and away from any area of your home that is prone to water damage.
  • Fully saturated black and white photographs should be rinsed of dirt in a pan of clean, cold water for thirty minutes with a change of water every ten minutes. Rinse with Kodak Photo-flo solution. Hang photographs to dry with clothespins on a line or spread out on blotters or paper towels and allow to dry fully.
  • Color photographs can be cleaned in the same way but don't need to be washed as long. Black and white photos usually tolerate water much better than do color photographs. Never place photos in freezer unless advised to do so by a conservator.

Adapted from an article by former Special Collections employee, Laura Katz Smith, Library Friends newsletter, Winter 1997.

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