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September 6, 2012 / Charlie McNabb

How to Salvage a Wet Book with Minimal Resources

This week I had the opportunity to practice some preservation techniques for my Preservation Management class.  I share my notes and photos here in case any readers encounter a leak or spill on their favorite book.

The book: Disciplines for the Inner Life by Bob Benson, Sr. and Michael W. Benson. Published by Deeper Life Press in 1989.  This book is a mid-quality paperback devotional text in excellent condition, less than one year old. Cover has very minor creasing on edges.  Pages are unmarked with only one small crease at top right corner.  Book appears to be bound with thermal binding technique.

Before the soak.

Day 1, 28 August 2012

The experiment begins. I thoroughly submerged the book in a bathtub full of cold water, to simulate a flood.  I allowed the book to float around for several minutes until it was saturated, then took it out and put it on a towel.  Emotionally, this exercise was a challenge.  I found myself hesitating before dropping the book in the water.  Even though this was a free and unwanted book, I still disliked the idea of damaging it.  Side note: even as a child I refused to dog-ear the pages of books and insisted upon using a bookmark.

Flood simulation

I perused several preservation resources for book drying techniques.  Because the book was saturated, I started with the University of Delaware Library’s instructions and stood the book on its tail with paper towels between the covers and text block, opening the covers slightly so the book could stand up.  As the paper towels became wet, I changed them and turned the book to rest on the opposite end.  At this point, the covers were curling and the pages were stuck together and wavy.

Phase 1: Saturated

Ambient and weather conditions: Book indoors resting on a high table.  Room unheated but comfortable due to summer conditions. Windows open to provide air flow.  Temperature reached a high of 78°F and a low of 48°F.  Fairly sunny, dry, cloud cover minimal, with relative humidity peaking at 32%.

Day 2, 29 August 2012

The book dried out considerably overnight. It was still damp to the touch, but the outer pages were dryer than the innermost ones.  Today I was able to gently separate the pages, an indication that the book is now “partially wet” rather than “saturated” (University of Delaware Library, 2009).  At this stage it was appropriate to interleave the pages with absorbent material and lay the book flat (Northeast Document Conservation Center, 2007; Heritage Preservation, 2012; and University of Delaware Library, 2009).  I used white paper towels and interleaved them every 20-25 pages.  It was necessary to change the paper towels every couple of hours as they absorbed water.  I noticed that the pages were wettest in the gutter and along the edges, with a dryer patch in the centers.  Each page was wavy and rippled, but the text was clear with no ink smudges.

Phase 2: Partially wet

Ambient and weather conditions: Book indoors resting on a high table.  Room unheated but comfortable due to summer conditions. Windows open to provide air flow.  Large box fan in room, pointed away from book to provide more air flow and cool the room down.  Temperature reached a high of 73°F and a low of 52°F.  Cloudy and dry, slight wind, with a relative humidity high of 41%.

Day 3, 30 August 2012

The book was still partially wet, with fragile pages, but the pages had a bigger dry middle spot and the covers were starting to dry. Pages remained wavy but were somewhat easier to separate.  I had been changing the interleaved paper towels regularly and at this point they required changing 2-3 times a day, rather than every couple of hours.  On this day I decided to attempt construction of a crude “wind tunnel” as described in Minter’s 2002 article.  I used a small pharmacy box and folded the end pieces in to provide structure.  The other end pieces I left open. I placed the still-interleaved book inside the box on two small ceramic bowls to allow air flow all around.  I placed a box fan at the loose-flap end and positioned the flaps to rest on the fan.  The fan was pointed away from the book, to suck air through the “tunnel” and out the other side.  According to Minter, who dried 250 water-damaged books using this technique, “most of the books returned to their normal 7% moisture content within 5 days” (2002, p. 108).

Phase 3: Wind tunnel

Ambient and weather conditions: Fan providing air flow and cooling the room.  Windows open for more air flow.  Temperature reached a high of 81°F and a low of 50°F.  Clear and dry with relative humidity peaking at 31%.

Day 4, 31 August 2012

After a full 24 hours in the wind tunnel, the book was much dryer, with only the edges moist.  I changed the interleaved paper towels in the morning and left the book in the wind tunnel for a second day.

Ambient and weather conditions: Fan providing air flow and cooling the room. Windows closed because I was out of the apartment.  Temperature reached a high of 79°F and a low of 48°F.  Partly cloudy with relative humidity peaking at 67%.

Day 5, 1 September 2012

After 48 hours in the wind tunnel, the book attained “damp” status at last!  The covers were cool to the touch and edges and gutters were slightly damp, but the pages could easily be separated.  At this stage, the paper towels could be removed and the book stood on its tail and fanned open for maximum air flow (University of Delaware Library, 2009; Heritage Preservation, 2012; Northeast Document Conservation Center, 2007; and Minnesota Historical Society, 2000).  I placed the book back on the high table, with a new towel underneath it, and fanned the covers and pages out approximately 90°.  I ran the box fan on medium adjacent to but not directly at the table.  Significant rippling was still visible on the pages.

Phase 4: Damp

Ambient and weather conditions: Fan on medium to provide air flow and cool the room.  Windows closed because I was out of the apartment again.  Temperature reached a high of 77°F and a low of 46°F.  Clear sky with a relative humidity high of 25%.

Day 6-7, 2-3 September 2012

The book was sufficiently dry to press; “no longer wet, but still cool to the touch” (Library of Congress, 2012).  Lacking a book press, I improvised using a glass cutting board and a stereo tuner.  I made sure the book’s covers were straight and the pages not bowing out.  The cutting board provided a large flat surface area and the tuner provided weight.  The book was much fatter than it was pre-soak; I was optimistic that the heavy weight might press it into submission.  Pages still ripply.

Phase 5: Pressing

Ambient and weather conditions. I forgot to turn the fan on both days, and windows were closed because I was out of the apartment.  Temperatures reached a high of 80°F and a low of 50°F.  Clear sky with relative humidity at 30-56%.

Day 8, 4 September 3 2012

After 48 hours in the makeshift press, I checked the book.  It was fully dried, but decidedly less attractive than its pre-soak state.  The front cover was bent slightly upward, there was a strange depression in the middle of the back cover, and the pages were all ripply.  Though the 48 hours of squeezing flattened it a good deal, the book was at least half an inch thicker than before.  However, the pages separated easily and the ink was perfectly legible with no smudging.

After shot. Still readable, but not pretty.

Summary

The book-drying process was extremely labor intensive. It was necessary to change interleaving papers every few hours, and turn the book often to minimize distortion.  There were several distinct phases that each required different kinds of air flow and interleavings.  After all the work, I discovered that it is simply impossible to bring the book back to its original condition. The book became thicker and refused to return to its pre-soak shape and size. I would need special tools to do this better- a real book press, proper interleaving papers, and a dehumidifier to keep the room below 50% relative humidity (Minnesota Historical Society, 2000).  The freezer method would, of course, be best.  Still, I am pleased that it’s possible to fully dry a wet book, and it is certainly better to have a slightly cockled book than no book at all.

Resources Consulted

Heritage Preservation. (2012). How to save wet books.

Library of Congress. (2012). Emergency drying procedures for water damaged collections.

Minnesota Historical Society. (2000). Books: Cloth or paper covers. Excerpted from the Minnesota History Center Emergency Preparedness Plan.

Minter, Bill. (2002). Water damaged books: Washing intact and air drying—a novel (?) approach. The Book and Paper Group Annual 21, 105-109.

Northeast Document Conservation Center. (2007). Emergency salvage of wet books and records.

University of Delaware Library. (2009). How to dry a wet book.

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