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(Excerpts and adaptations from the University of Pittsburgh Library System Disaster Plan)


Consult with Physical Plant and Fire Marshall before proceeding with the following:

  • Turn off and unplug computers or other electrical equipment.
  • Turn off water.
  • Turn off the heat. If possible turn on the air conditioning and leave it on without interruption for at least 2-3 days. Turn on fans and dehumidifiers. The principal enemy to collections in a water disaster is mold, which can develop within 48 hours in a warm, damp, and stagnant environment. If conditions are more severe, it will establish itself in a shorter period. Mold growth will be discouraged if the environment is kept as cool and dry as possible with good air circulation.
  • Remove water on floors or in carpets with wet-dry vacuums or carpet extractors.
  • Remove damp or wet curtains or carpets.
  • Be aware of potential electrical hazards. If the main power needs to be turned off, fans should be run from generators to avoid fire or danger to staff.

General Considerations

In any flood, damage and loss are inevitable. Some materials will be permanently disfigured, whether cosmetically or structurally. The object of a salvage effort is to recover the collection as a whole, while minimizing damage. The Disaster Response Team should not spend too much time on single items or small groups of items at the expense of the collection.

Wide-spread damage

If the disaster is widespread, or includes more than 4,000 items, immediately remove from the flood site high priority materials. Remove materials that are highly vulnerable to water damage. Immediate attention should be given to photographic materials, such as collodion wet plate negatives, ambrotypes, panotypes, or tintypes. Wet materials printed on coated paper (shiny), should be frozen before the paper dries and should not be allowed to dry. The surface layer of the adhesives and other substances on coated paper can cause adjacent pages to bond together when wet. When this effect, which is known as "blocking", occurs it is virtually impossible to reverse. Pages will be permanently fused together and will be very difficult to separate. Vacuum freeze-drying is the most effective way to avoid blocking. If mold has already developed, there is little likelihood that the material can be air dried, and it should be frozen immediately

Assessing the wetness of the materials

Remove the most saturated materials first. These are not only likely to be the ones most in need of attention, but since they hold substantial quantities of water, their removal will help a great deal to lower the ambient humidity at the flood site. The upper most or lower most shelves will be the wettest, depending on the source of the water. The longer the books have been exposed to water, the more pronounced these indicators will become. The following visual clues are good indicators of water content: swelling of the textblock and binding; deformation of the binding; cockling of the paper or board; darkening of the color of the paper, cloth, or leather.Swelling is an especially good indicator of the length of exposure. The various parts of the book will swell at different rates as it continues to absorb water. The textblock will swell the most and push out against the less expansive case and the sewing thread, which may even shrink. This results in a tendency for the spine to assume a concave configuration; the longer the book sits, the more concave it becomes. When sitting in a pool of water for a few days, some books swell to such an extent that the spine forms a tight backwards circle and the front board touches the rear board. Some tightly shelved books may swell to such a degree that they "walk" themselves off the shelves. Swelling will usually reach its peak after a few days.

When over 100 items are water damaged it is generally not practical to air dry these materials on-site. If this is the situation, the materials should be frozen as quickly and safely as possible. Proper freezing at very low temperatures will stabilize materials physically and chemically by preventing the development of mold; the further swelling of paper and boards; the bleeding of inks; and possibly the blocking of pages. Most importantly, freezing buys time, which allows one to plan the salvage effort sensibly, without having to operate under crisis conditions. Books and papers can be frozen indefinitely without damage.

Recovery of Paper Media

Handling Procedures: Wet paper has very little strength and easily tears. Do not attempt to open a very wet book. The pages of a wet book cling together and an attempt to open it may result in serious tears. Moreover, damage to the binding can occur. If the book is only damp, it is usually safe to open, though this is not necessary unless it is to be air dried. Do not attempt to close a wet book that has been found lying open, as often happens when books walk off the shelves and fall into standing water. Such books are usually badly swollen and the pages may be temporarily fused together.
Mud, Silt, & Dirt: Generally it is not a good idea to attempt to remove mud or other debris at the flood site, but rather to allow them to dry and brush them off later. However, if the materials are extremely dirty or the contaminants areparticularly noxious or toxic , it may be necessary to wash off the covers of the book before further treatment. This is best accomplished by holding the book closed and exposing the spine to a slow stream of water, with the fore-edge pointed down so that the water runs off the case without further wetting the paper. On occasion it may be necessary to wash contaminants from the paper itself, in which case extreme care should be taken. This task should be performed as quickly as possible. Books that have been washed should be frozen immediately. Rare materials, art on paper and other unique items may need to be treated in different manner.
Disbinding: In a small scale emergency when attention can be paid to individual items, it is on occasion, appropriate to remove the textblock from its case. This may be appropriate when the textblock is swelling severely and is being distorted by the case, or when mold has begun to grow in the case.
Drying Methods: If you need time to make decisions or remove large numbers of materials from the disaster site, books and documents should be frozen to reduce physical distortion and biological contamination. Four methods for drying materials are summarized below:

  • Air Drying: Very time consuming, labor intensive operation, which is most suitable for small numbers (less than 100) of damp or slightly wet books or documents. It is seldom successful for drying coated paper, such as the sort of paper found in many art books or journals.
  • Dehumidification: The newest method used to dry library materials and is appropriate for drying damp to moderately wet books, documents, equipment, and furnishings. Dehumidification must be initiated within 24 hours before swelling or mold develops. It should not be used for drying coated paper. Large commercial dehumidifiers are brought into the library with all collections, equipment, and furnishings left in place. Temperature and humidity can be controlled to the customer's specification. The advantage of this method is that materials can be dried in place on the shelf or in storage boxes. The time and expense of removing materials to a freezer or vacuum chamber are eliminated.
  • Freezer Drying: This method is most successful with books and documents that are damp or moderately wet. It is important to freeze the materials as quickly as possible to reduce distortion and facilitate drying. Until the items are frozen through to the center, the freezer temperature should be -10 deg. F. or lower to encourage the formation of the smallest ice crystals. After this state has been achieved, the freezer temperature can be raised to around 0 deg. F. so that some drying can occur. Home freezers are usually not cold enough to achieve rapid freezing, but may be used at the lowest possible temperature setting, if more suitable equipment is not available. Frost-free units are preferred since they will begin to dry the materials, albeit slowly. Materials should be placed in the freezer as soon as possible after water damage has occurred. Books will dry best if their bindings are supported firmly to inhibit swelling. Manuscripts or unbound materials may be placed in the freezer in stacks or spread out for faster drying. In very large commercial freezers these materials may be left in their storage boxes, however, this will slow the drying process. Depending on the freezer temperature and the extent of the water damage, this method will take from several weeks to several months to dry materials.
  • Vacuum Freeze Drying: Vacuum freeze drying is a commercial application of a physical phenomenon called "sublimation". Frozen materials are placed in a vacuum chamber. The collections are dried at temperatures below 32 deg. F. through a process called sublimation, in which ice crystals vaporize without melting. This process is very effective in drying large quantities of wet books and paper records. Vacuum freeze drying will not cause additional distortion or swelling beyond that incurred before the materials were placed in the chamber. Coated paper will dry well if it has been frozen or placed into the chamber within 6-8 hours. Rare and unique materials can also be dried successfully with this method, but leather and vellum bindings may become distorted. It is also effective with water soluble inks and pigments. Vacuum freeze drying also lifts mud, dirt, and soot to the surface, making cleaning less time consuming. Although this method may initially appear to be more expensive due to the equipment required, the results are often so satisfactory that additional funds for rebinding or recasing are often not necessary.

Recovery of Non-Paper Media

Priority: Dry immediately
Handling: Drain & carry horizontally
Packing: Face up without touching painting layer
Drying: Air dry; Consult painting conservator

COMPUTER MEDIA:  Prevention is the best insurance against loss. Make backups & store off-site. Equipment may be damaged trying to copy contaminated tapes or disks.
Floppy Disks
Priority: Dry immediately
Handling: Do not touch disk surface with bare hands
Packing: Contact supplier for best method
Drying:  1. Cut edge of jacket with non-magnetic scissors for floppy disks or pry open plastic disk cover for flexi disks; 2. Remove disk with gloved hands; 3. Wash in several photo trays of distilled water; 4. Dry with lint free towels; 5. Insert into new jacket or disk cover
Priority: Dry immediately
Drying: Please follow these instructions to air dry: 1. Rinse tapes in cold distilled water; 2. Support vertically; 3. Clean by winding against a felt pad; 4. Copy tape and discard damaged original

Diazo Fiche
Priority: Last
Packing: In drawers or cartons
Drying: Air dry
Jacketed Microfilm
Priority: Freeze or dry within 72 hours
Packing: Keep wet inside a container lined with garbage bags until drying can begin.
Drying: Air dry
Microfilm Rolls
Priority: Rewash and dry within 72 hours
Handling: Do not remove from boxes; hold cartons together with rubber bands.
Packing: Fill boxes with water and pack (in blocks of 5) in a cardboard box lined with garbage bags.
Drying: Arrange for a microfilm processor to rewash & dry within 72 hours; label box "Wet Film".

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Updated September 15, 2005 . Please send comments to Ludwig Possie Web Administrator.
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