When the Dam Breaks:
Salvaging Water-Damaged Books

Triage: Stabilize and Assess

The first few hours after a library collection has been soaked or flooded are the most crucial in determining how much material will be permanently damaged or destroyed, and how much can be saved. According to Waters, the majority of swelling in books will take place in the first four hours, and mould can begin to grow on damp books and papers within 48 hours (Waters, Stabilizing). The first step upon discovering a water-damaged collection, therefore, is to stabilize the material as quickly as possible. Depending on the specifics of the situation, one will either want to focus on just the affected material, or else increase immediate treatment to include the entire area. If the damage involves a large area or collection, it is more efficient to stabilize the entire environment before tackling specific items. The following methods can all be used to accomplish this end, depending on circumstances: installing fans and dehumidifiers, turning off the heat, turning on or bringing in air conditioning, opening windows and doors to improve air circulation and (in the winter) to lower the temperature (Waters, Primary Considerations). The goal of these actions is to bring down the temperature and humidity as much as possible in order to slow mould growth, and to buy the salvage team more time to do their work.

There are many examples of the successful application of these methods. Chris Webb details an example of stabilizing the environment by using fans, dehumidifiers, and turning off the heat, in order to allow paper to air-dry (251). Susan George and Cheryl Naslund described how their library environment was stabilized by first wet-vacuuming the carpet and removing ruin ceiling tiles, followed by turning down the heating in the building and "back ventilat[ing] through the building's air exchange system, thereby pumping cold, dry outside air into the building" (255). They were fortunate to have this option, as it would have proved to be much more efficient than merely opening windows.

As the staff at the Corning Museum of Glass discovered, the suggestions listed on paper are sometimes easier said than done. In 1972, in the aftermath of a hurricane, the valley that contained the museum was flooded with muddy water. Finding supplies was difficult, as the entire area was affected by the disaster. John Martin reports that they were without full utilities for almost three weeks following the flash flood (233). In light of this he says, "Without electricity there were no freezers. Without gasoline stations, no transportation. With all the stores in Corning damaged, there were no boxes, no paper towels, no running water for cleaning mud from books" (Martin, 234-5). The staff had to work quickly to get any material that could be salvaged out of the area.

Once the situation has been stabilized (or perhaps as this is happening, depending on the case), an initial assessment will need to be made of the collection affected. When the damage is on the scale of what Guy Robertson calls a "serious incident,"[2] the decision of which items to treat, and how to treat them, is relatively easy, and may even be made on a book-by-book basis. In the event of a disaster,[3] the librarians and/or salvage team will need to decide whether to attempt to save all damaged materials, or whether some items are of low enough value or importance that they are not worth the effort to salvage. In some cases, the immediate decision may be to freeze everything and to assess individual items later. This will be discussed in more detail below.

Along with the initial assessment, a salvage order must be established to ensure that the most sensitive or valuable materials are treated first. In-print paperbacks should not be removed while irreplaceable local history documents remain on the shelves to develop mould. If the library has a disaster management plan, the order may be contained within that document; otherwise, the salvage team leader will need to create it from scratch. According to Waters, "high priority should be given to salvaging the catalog and other records of the collection" (Waters, Removal). In the event of a disaster, the catalog will be instrumental in organizing material once it has been removed from the library, as well as helping with the insurance claim, if one is to be made. The Corning Museum staff was aware of the need to save a record of their collection, however the card catalog was destroyed in the flood. What remained was a damaged shelf list, which was given high priority for drying and copying. Although physical card catalogues are rarely used now, libraries should ensure they have an off-site copy of the database that contains up-to-date collection information.

[2] He gives the example of "a roof leak that drenches several shelves of replaceable books" (Robertson, 41).
[3]Defined by Robertson as "an event that is beyond the powers of first responders to prevent or control, and that results in serious damage" (41).

© 2006 Stacey Bissell
Originally written for LIS 598, August 2005
Adapted for LIS 600, March 2006
School of Library and Information Studies
University of Alberta