A Guide to Salvaging Personal Books, Documents and Photographs

Being based in the North East of Scotland, we are acutely aware of the devastation that the recent large scale flooding across areas of the UK has brought. Now that waters are receding, members of the public living in the local area will be in the process of assessing the damage caused to their homes and personal belongings. It is with that in mind that our conservators have compiled the following advice which relates to the salvage of books, papers and photographs.

We have tried to provide a simple introduction to what action can be taken to minimise long term damage to this type of material. It is unlikely that everything can be saved, and some types of damage will be irreversible. Salvage can also take up a great deal of time. With this in mind, it is likely that you will need to prioritise the items that are most important to you.

If anything is of high value, in a financial or personal sense, then we would recommend that you contact a conservator as soon as possible. Details are provided for the Conservation Register at the end of this post.

Personal Protection

Flood water may be contaminated. Make sure to protect yourself when handling items that have been submerged in flood water. Use waterproof gloves to protect your skin, and consider using a mask that will protect you from breathing in harmful mould spores.

Wear gloves to protect yourself from contaminated water


Given the right conditions, wet organic material such as paper, leather and photographs can grow mould in as little as 24-48 hours.

Mould is damaging to possessions, but can also be damaging to your health. Some people are more sensitive to mould than others, and some moulds can be toxic. Protect yourself, and if you notice any adverse effects to your health, then contact your doctor.

Active mould is generally fluffy and smears when handled. Inactive mould tends to be dry and powdery. The perfect conditions for mould growth are high humidity, heat and stagnant air. Books, papers and documents (and other possessions) should therefore be removed from these conditions as soon as possible.

Live mould can vary in colour but it is generally fluffy and will smear when handled

If mould is growing on your items, do not be tempted to wipe them clean. This will merely spread the mould spores across a wider surface area. Mould will only grow if conditions are favourable, so you want to remove items into a less favourable environment as soon as possible, i.e. an airy space that is low in humidity and not too warm. If you have a fan and dehumidifier available, these can be used to maintain these conditions. If possible, keep items affected by mould separated by those that are not.

When items are dry (see below for methods of drying), and the mould is dormant, it can be removed with a soft brush. Ideally this should be done outside to prevent any cross contamination. Use a mask to protect yourself.

If you have too many items to deal with in one go, then you can put them in a freezer bag and place them in a freezer. This will not resolve the problem, but it will prevent mould growth occurring and buy you time. Items can then be defrosted and dealt with in manageable quantities.

What to do

Bear in mind that waterlogged paper is much weaker than dry, so care needs to be taken when handling books, paper and photographs that have been affected by flood water.

For all the drying processes described below, make sure that you are using a dry, well-ventilated room. If possible make use of a fan and dehumidifier, but if these are not available, then make sure doors or windows are left open to provide greater opportunity for air circulation.


Damp books

fanned books
Books that are damp or just wet around the edges can be stood on one end. If required, interleaving can be placed throughout the book.

If books are only damp around the edges, and can be safely fanned and set upright supported by their covers, do so. Use a well ventilated room, preferably with a fan that circulates the air and a dehumidifier.

  • Place the books on something absorbent. Blotting paper is good if you can get it, but absorbent colour-fast material, kitchen towels, dry cotton sheets or newspaper print will also work.
  • Fan books out and place blotting paper or some other absorbent material fanned1between the front boards and the main text. Add more interleaving throughout the block of the book if possible. If the book has coated papers then care must be taken to place interleaving between each page to prevent them sticking together. Grease proof paper can be used for this. (Coated paper can look slightly glossy and is often used in books with a lot of photographs or illustrations. Magazines are usually published on coated paper).
  • Regularly replace wet interleaving for dry, turning the book over each time so both the top and bottom gets an opportunity to dry.
  • When books feel dry, but still a little cold to the touch, remove all interleaving apart from that between the covers and the text block and place under a board, e.g. a shelf, weighed down with something heavy.
  • Keep under weight until books are completely dry. You will need to change the absorbent material occasionally as moisture moves into it.
  • Pressing in this way should remove the worse of any distortion.
pressing books
Once almost dry, the pages will be dry to the touch but will feel cold. At this point place under boards and weights and press to reduce distortion.

Once almost dry, the pages will be dry to the touch but will still feel cold. At this point place under boards and weights and press to reduce distortion.

Very wet books

Books that are very wet should ideally be frozen and freeze dried, however, this process is not possible with the usual domestic freezer, and commercial facilities are not cheap. The alternative is labour intensive, particularly if you have a lot of books to deal with, but it will save the book and its contents, albeit it in a distorted form.

As for all drying processes, make sure you are using a dry, well-ventilated room. If you have access to a fan and dehumidifier this will help maintain the right conditions.

Remember that paper is weak when it is wet. When you start the interleaving as described below, do not attempt to turn individual pages. Instead move blocks of pages together. As the book starts to dry and the pages can be separate more safely, you can gradually add more interleaving.

  • Lay out absorbent material on a flat surface.
  • Place your book down flat on this surface.
  • Open the front cover, supporting if necessary either with something like a pillow or a rolled up towel. When books are wet, adhesive in the spine is likely to have softened, reducing the amount of support it provides for the structure. The paper is likely to be swollen with the water, placing additional pressure on the area, and any sewing present is likely to be strained. You want to make sure that you are not introducing additional pressure to the area.
  • Interleave every few pages with a thin layer of absorbent material. Newsprint paper, or kitchen towels are a good option as they shouldn’t swell the book too much.
  • Carefully close the book, moving a small number of pages at a time, especially if the book is big. Allow to dry.
  • Once the book has been drying for some time, and the interleaving can’t absorb any more moisture, turn the book over, and replace the wet interleaving with dry.
  • Bear in mind that depending on the size of the book, the moisture levels, and the materials used, this process can take a number of days, or even weeks.
  • Once the book is no longer damp, but still remains cold to the touch, remove all interleaving except for that between the front covers and the text block and press as described under the ‘Damp Books’ section above.

Due to the high levels of moisture, mould is a real possibility. If mould grows, continue the process until dry, and deal with the mould when dry and dormant as described above.

Place interleaving every few pages & provide support for the spine of the book as you work your way through it


If piles of paper appear to be stuck together, and they are resisting separation in any way, they will likely tear if you continue. Place them as they are on some absorbent material and don’t attempt to separate them until they have started to dry.

If items have been affected have dirt or debris attached to them, it is advisable to wash them before drying. Especially as that dirt might be contaminated. However, is there is any evidence that this will cause further damage to the item, for example if inks have run or blurred, then skip this step. It may be possible to deal with it when dry. Also bear in mind that paper is weaker when wet, so if you are worried that you might damage items by washing, then, again, skip this step.

  • Place each item individually in a shallow bath of water. The water should loosen the hold of the dirt and it should gradually lift from the item. Gentle agitation of the water can help speed this up.
  • Replace the water and repeat until dirt is removed, keeping an eye on any ink or paint present in case it starts to run. If so, remove from the water immediately and blot dry.
  • Once the dirt is removed, place the documents on absorbent material and allow to air dry.
  • Air-drying like this will cause some distortion or cockling. This can be reduced if papers are individually place between absorbent material such as blotting paper and placed under weight. Items can be stacked like this to save space, but the absorbent material needs to be replaced for dry regularly, which makes it a more labour intensive method than air drying alone.


There are many photographic processes, and each can respond to water in a different way. Similarly, not all photographic material can be safely frozen. If extremely dirty, photographs can be washed in the same way as paper documents, however, for some processes this will cause irreversible damage to the photographic image. It is therefore recommended that non-professional salvage is restricted to air drying.

  • Take care not to touch the image side of the photograph/negative as water can soften the emulsion layer which contains the image making it more susceptible to damage.
  • Lay photographs face up on top of absorbent material. As this becomes wet, replace wet for dry.
  • Continue until photographs are dry.
  • If photographs are piled up, attempt to separate as they will stick together as they dry. However, if they have already become attached, leave as they are.
  • Negatives should be dried vertically by pegging onto a washing line hung indoors. Photographs can also be hung in this way. While this will result in damage to the emulsion in the area where it is clipped, it is more economical in terms of space.

The photographs are likely to have distorted during this drying process, but images should remain intact. If additional treatment is needed, for example, if photographs are stuck together, it is advisable to contact a conservator.


Further Information

If you require further advice, the following pages provided by a conservation organisation called the North East Document Conservation Centre based are well worth a look. Not all information will be applicable to a domestic environment, but it might provide some helpful pointers.

Emergency Salvage of Wet Books and Records


Emergency Salvage of Wet Photographs



The National Archives of Scotland has produced some guidelines on archives preservation which includes a section on responding to disasters. See page 9 onwards.



If you have salvaged items that require professional intervention by a conservator the Conservation Register provides a list of accredited conservators and can be searched by materials type. Not all professional conservators are included on this database, so do contact us and we can send additional details if required.



Our thoughts are with all those affected by the recent flooding. We hope that the advice provided here can help in some small way.


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