Salvaging water-damaged books, papers, and photographs

On August 4, the greater Louisville area experienced massive rainfall and flooding. Many institutions, such as the Louisville Free Public Library and the Kentucky Derby Museum, suffered extensive damage. (Fortunately, the Filson made it through the flood with no damage to its collections.) Undoubtedly, personal papers and photographs still in the hands of individuals and families were harmed as well. The flood and its aftermath raise many questions about the emergency response and salvage of flood-damaged materials. Below are tips for the care of personal papers, books, and photographs that have been water damaged. Conduct salvage response within 48 hours for greater success.


Scene from the 1937 flood in Louisville, Kentucky.

The following tips are drawn from publications of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force. For more information you can visit the task force’s recovery website or call a local conservation or preservation specialist.


  • If the book is partially wet or damp, stand it on its top or bottom edge with covers opened to 90-degree angles and air dry. A fan will speed drying.
  • If the book is very wet, lay it flat on a clean surface; interleave less than 20% of the book with absorbent material. Replace interleaving when damp.
  • If rinsing the book is necessary, hold book closed.
  • If you have too many books to air dry in 48 hours:  wrap in freezer or waxed paper, pack spine down in a sturdy container, and freeze.*


  • Air dry flat as individual sheets or small piles up ¼” thick. Interleave; replace interleaving when damp.
  • Do not unfold or separate individual wet sheets.
  • If too many items for air drying: interleave (by groups or individually) with freezer or waxed paper,pack papers and files into a sturdy container, only 90% full, and freeze*.


  • Remove from plastic/paper enclosure or frames. Make sure you save all information about the photos.
  • As necessary, carefully rinse with cool, clean water.
  • Do not touch or blot surfaces.
  • Air dry by hanging with clips (from a line) on the non-image areas or lay flat on absorbent paper. Keep photos from contact with adjacent surfaces or each other.
  • If there are too many for immediate attention, either: keep photos (except historic photos) submerged in a container of clean water no more than 48 hours, then air dry - or - freeze. If possible, interleave each photo with waxed paper. Do not, however, freeze glass plate negatives.

*A note on freezing: when object cannot be air dried in 48 hours, freeze them until later action can be taken. Freezing will stabilize collections by stopping mold growth, ink run, dye transfer, and swelling. Commercial freezers are ideal, but home freezers work too. Also, a refrigerated truck can help keep materials cool enough to slow mold growth.

Parting thoughts:

  • Safety first! Do not put yourself at risk. Remain calm, beware of electricity & water, and take precautions when working around mold.
  • Establish priorities for salvage (keep them realistic and time-sensitive).
  • Prevent mold growth. Mold is your enemy! Remember the best way to inhibit the growth of mold and mildew is to reduce humidity. Increase air flow with fans, open windows, air conditioners and dehumidifiers.

Filson Historical

3 comments on “Salvaging water-damaged books, papers, and photographs

  1. Water Damage Cleanup Tampa

    Freezing wet papers or books that cannot be dried quickly is a great tip.. There are also numerous “contents drying” companies out there that can help restore your items to pre-loss condition.

  2. Water Damage Cleanup Tampa

    If you haven’t performed freeze drying techniques, we suggest hiring a company to perform these services for you. Most companies can even setup shop on site, especially if it’s a large loss scenario.

  3. Rebuilt Title Cars

    Unfortunately, with water damaged cars it’s more complicated than with books…


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