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Keeping History
Drying Wet Books
By Georgen Gilliam Charnes

We do live on an island and things get wet. The roof leaks. The basement floods. Occasionally, the whole street washes away. No matter how careful you are with your books or papers, sometimes they get wet. Here are a few tips on what to do when that happens.

Prevention is the preferred course. Are your books stored where they might get wet? Basements are often too damp an environment for books, documents, and photographs which will last longer if stored in an environment where the humidity is kept under forty degrees. Keep your books and papers away from windows that can be opened because pollution, rain, high temperatures, and light can damage them.

If a book gets wet, the primary objective is to get it dry with as little structural distortion as possible. That is, you don't want the binding to buckle or warp or the pages to curl but it is also important to dry them to prevent mold growth. Once mold gets started in a collection, it's very difficult to get rid of and can spread to your other possessions.

There are two options for drying books: air-drying and vacuum-freeze-drying. Unfortunately, vacuum-freeze-drying requires a special machine which raises the temperature while the pressure is reduced, causing water in the book to vaporize while it is sucked out. A regular freezer won't do. However, placing your book in your home freezer can buy you time to pursue professional conservation if the wet item is valuable, or if you cannot air-dry your book immediately. It's also a useful option if you have a large number of wet books and only want to treat a small number at a time. Placeing a wet book in your home freezer will not dry your book, but it will buy you time to deal with your wet book problems at your own pace.

When air-drying books, first assess the damage. If the book is soaked through and very wet, don't fan the pages, force them apart, or otherwise open the book. In a room with a moving current of air, place the book on its head (the top edge) and allow it to drain onto sheets of absorbent paper. Place more paper between the pages of the book and its cover. When the sheets are saturated, keep replacing them until the book is no longer soaked.

When the book has dried somewhat, open it a little bit and insert paper towels every twenty pages or so. Keep changing the sheets until the book is only damp. At that point, the leaves can be fanned open under a fan. If you want to use a hairdryer, be alert to the possible curling of pages that can occur while drying. Slower drying usually results in less curling. If the cover is still very wet, place paper towels between the cover and text block. Finally, when the book is nearly dry, close it, place it on its side, and place it under a weight. This will prevent curling of pages and cover. Check frequently to make sure it's drying satisfactorily.

Hopefully you won't have the problem of flooding or leaks, but in case you do, these few tips will give you a quick start in drying the materials.

Originally published in the "Keeping History" column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004.