Monday, June 18, 2012

Drowning Memories: Flood Damage to Family Papers

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
Floods and other water events can seriously damage paper based records.  Water, especially dirty water, can stain and soil documents.  Many inks are water soluble and can run or be completely washed away.  Coated papers, especially those used in early-20th Century books and some photographs tend to stick together.  Mold growth is also a serious problem.
In museums, we have disaster plans that establish instructions for the care of collections before, during and after a disaster.  It includes plans for evacuating material to higher floors or from the building altogether in anticipation of a disaster, establishes disaster response teams in charge of specific areas and lists supplies and contractors needed to help out during the aftermath.  Obviously, most families do not have anything as detailed, but there are some important steps you can take to be prepared in case of a disaster.  Most people have vitally important personal documents in their homes including insurance paperwork, banking and investment paperwork and personal identification paperwork.  Know where these documents are in your house and make sure they are stored in such a way that they can easily be taken with you when fleeing your home. 
Once disaster has struck, your first step to saving your documents and photos from water damage is to assess, sort and prioritize the effected material.  Is any of it dry?  If so, remove it from the damp environment before mold growth begins.  Is there more to dry than you can easily deal with before mold sets in?  Place it in the freezer so you can dry things in manageable batches.  Is there anything really, really important that you want just the way it was before?  Freeze it and call a professional conservator. 
Once you’ve done your sorting and assessing, the real work begins.  Often in the case of floods, your papers and photos are left both wet and muddy.  Before you begin drying, try to remove the surface mud which can be a lot harder to get off when dry.  Paper towels are your friend, but remember to be both careful and gentle, especially with your photos.  It actually is possible to wipe away an image along with the mud.
Now for drying items.  The first thing you’re going to need is a large surface area where you can lay things out to dry.  Ideally, this should be somewhere indoors where you can control temperature and humidity and plug in a fan, but in many cases that will be impossible.  Shake, drip or blot as much excess water off as possible and then lay your papers and photos flat to dry.  If you need to, you can do some layering, just remember to put blotter paper or paper towels in between and have stacks of no more than five items.  If possible have a fan going to continuously circulate the air.  Just don’t aim the fan directly at your papers.  Having a dehumidifier may also help as well. 
Lastly, be aware that there is only so much you can do.  Accept that your coated paper books are pretty much soggy garbage without professional help and that you will never be able to remove mold once it starts.  Water causes paper to swell, so even after drying your water damaged papers will be warped and your photographs will curl inward. 
For more information about caring for your paper artifacts or finding a conservator near you, check out the Northeast Document Conservation Center.  For information about non-paper artifacts, check out "Salvaging Your History" by our curator Erin Doane. 

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