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For people who love, use and manage archives

Archives Outside - For people who love, use and manage archives

Conservation Tip No. 6: Dealing with wet records


Before going into any detail about the salvage and handling of wet records the importance of relevant training cannot be stressed enough. Contact the government archives, libraries, museums or galleries in your State or Territory to find out what training might be available. The best courses  will provide training both in the development of a disaster plan and in the salvage of records – with the very best providing the opportunity to handle and treat examples of damaged records.

Planning for records salvage

There are many good publications that provide information on how to treat records in the event of a disaster. Some of the information in this blog has been sourced from ‘reCollections’[i], ‘Be Prepared: Guidelines for small museums for writing a disaster preparedness plan’[ii] and ‘Keeping Archives, 3rd edition’[iii]

Water damage is one of the most common results of disasters and mould growth often follows if you do not dry records quickly enough.

It is important to know how to operate any equipment you will use to respond to a disaster

Handling wet records takes some practice, so if you don’t have access to a training workshop that provides a salvage simulation find some disposable material you can wet yourself. Observe how it reacts and practice handling the records when they are wet. Try some of the drying techniques mentioned here and test out what freezing does to your samples.

It is important to know how to operate any equipment you will use to respond to a disaster – e.g. wet/dry vacuum cleaners, dehumidifiers, water pumps, etc.

Protecting you and your staff

Wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment is important to stay safe. Close-fitting plastic gloves will protect the records from damage and also protect you from possible hazards in the water. P2 masks capable of filtering mould are important as mould can grow very quickly in very damp conditions. Eye protection is also a good idea. Keep all of these things in your disaster kit to have ready when you need them.

 Do you have the space to dry your records?

Do you have a clean, dry, well-ventilated space that is large enough to lay wet records out to dry? Do you have the staff to deal with the quantity of wet records that are damaged? If you don’t it’s best to contact a salvage company to undertake the work for you – plan ahead and keep their contact details updated for when you need them and discuss their methods and procedures thoroughly so you know what to expect. Ask the company for their resume and be sure that they have experience in disaster salvage of archival records – do not go with the cheapest option unless you can be sure the company has the relevant experience. If you are unsure about any aspect of the company’s methodology then contact a trained conservator for advice.

Salvage techniques

Air drying is the safest method for salvaging wet records

Air drying is the safest method for salvaging wet records if you have the space and can dry them within 48 hours – most records can be air dried without sustaining much further damage. You will need a room with good ventilation and air circulation. Pedestal fans and portable dehumidifiers can be used to increase the air circulation and speed the rate of drying by lowering the relative humidity in the room. Lay out blotting paper or some other absorbent material on large flat tables or dry floor spaces. Change the blotters regularly to aid in the drying process and to prevent mould growth. Some records, such photographs and negatives, can be pegged on to washing lines or string lines to dry.

Freezing is an option that can be used to buy time for some records; however some records should never be frozen when they are wet as they will sustain permanent damage.

Freezing is an option for

  • Records that have already developed mould
  • Records printed on coated paper
  • Records with water-soluble inks and dyes
  • Leather and vellum bound books

As a general rule, if you cannot dry your records within 48 hours you will need to consider freezing them

Never freeze

  • Photographs, film, glass plate negatives (including microfiche and microfilm)
  • Records with painted components
  • Electronic media
  • Magnetic media
  • Vinyl records
  • Records with mixed media (e.g. wood and metal components together)
  • Veneered wood (e.g. volumes with decorative wooden covers)

Be very cautious when freezing architectural plans – especially those of mixed format. More modern types of plans such as coated plastics and papers can block stick together permanently with other records if frozen together. If freezing is absolutely necessary ensure that all sheets are interleaved with waxed paper prior to freezing.

As a general rule, if you cannot dry your records within 48 hours you will need to consider freezing them to prevent mould growth and other problems. Freezing does not dry the records and the records will need to go through other drying processes to recover them fully. Blast freezers are preferred as they cool the records very quickly reducing the growth of ice crystals that can cause damage.[iv]

The three referenced publications provide detailed information about how to deal with specific record formats.

[i] Heritage Collections Council. reCollections: Caring for Collections Across Australia.1998. Commonwealth of Austrlia.

[ii] Soderlund, K. Be Prepared: guidelines for small museums for writing a disaster preparedness plan. Heritage Collections Council. 2000.

[iii] Hadlow, E. Preservation. Keeping Archives, 3rd Edition, 2008

[iv] Hadlow, E. Preservation. Keeping Archives, 3rd Edition, 2008

  • Naomi Parry says:

    Hi there, thank you for circulating this valuable information and tweeting the link – a fortnight ago at work we were inundated. It’s good to know that we did the right thing, but that was instinct rather than knowledge or training.

    August 2, 2010 at 10:09 am
  • Jenny says:

    I came home from work to a house flooded up to 30cms in some rooms by the hot water system in 2000 – what I had learned as an archivist/librarian (but never had to really practice before!) kicked in but we had little useful equipment and supplies and a lot of household furniture & items to move or save. Unfortunately I’d broken a golden rule and stored some films and boxes of books and papers on cupboard floors.

    After ensuring that the areas were safe from electric shock etc. and the relevant tradies called 3 of us spent a very long night moving things, drying up furnishings and mopping floors. With the films and paper items I assessed what could & should be slavaged and set about blotting and air drying as appropriate. I soon ran out of kitchen towel so used non-dyed toilet paper, tissues and cotton towels. Photos and films were lightly dried and hung out on the verandha.

    I remembered an article I’d only recently read in an archives journal about using microwaves to dry paper items – I started with some old school exercise books (staples removed) it worked fine and I then spent the night relaying books and documents in and out of the kitchen microwave. I did make value judgements on what went in the microwave as I was not wholy convinced on the correctness of the method but 10 years on the documents are still in fine shape.

    I cannot recommend highly enough that all who have collections, whether personal or at work, know what to do in disaster recovery for records and archives, and do the short courses at State Archives etc.
    You never know when its going to happen to you.

    August 5, 2010 at 11:05 am
  • Anthea Brown says:

    Hi Naomi,
    Thanks for your comment. That’s bad news about your disaster but good news that you knew what to do.

    August 9, 2010 at 4:34 pm
  • David says:

    Some great advice – Have a plan to manage all documents and records!

    May 26, 2013 at 8:45 pm

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