Volume 10, Number 2, May 1988, pp.2-5, chart on newsletter center spread (not paginated)

Salvage Operations for Water Damaged Collections

by Betty Walsh


  1. Designate (preferably before the disaster) a Recovery Director. Know how to find a recovery specialist or use a conservator or other staff member trained in dealing with emergency salvage.
  2. Do not enter the building until it has been designated as safe. Confer with the maintenance director, fire and police departments.
  3. Recovery Director assembles the Disaster Team.
  4. The Recovery Director and Recovery Specialist, accompanied by the Recorder and a photographer, will assess the scene of disaster. The latter three will survey and photograph the damage.
  5. Decide whether the building will stay open, or closed so staff can participate in salvage operations.
  6. The Recovery Director ensures that he or she has an office or desk near the site and is accessible by phone or walkie-talkie.
  7. The logistics manager arranges for emergency facilities and supplies. Arrangements should be made for team members - coffee, portable toilets, etc.
  8. The Recovery Director will coordinate with the maintenance director to:

    a. Reduce the temperature to less than 18°. C (65°. F) by turning down the heat.

    b. Lower relative humidity by adjusting the humidification system or installing dehumidifiers. Monitor.

    c. Circulate air with fans. Open doors if security is available.

  9. Obtain generators if the electricity is off. Use safely grounded, waterproof cords.
  10. The Recovery Director will delegate teams for salvage. Team members will be briefed and assigned to:

    a. Prepare packing materials (cutting freezer paper, assembling cardboard boxes) and move to packers.

    b. Pack the damaged collections. Begin with the wettest objects and items on the floor. See packing instructions below for the materials being handled.

    c. Move crates and boxes by hand trucks and pallet movers if possible.

  11. The Recorder numbers the crates and records their contents. If catalogue numbers aren't evident, note the location where the object was found. Record the condition of the contents as wet, partially wet, or damp. Label crates with tyvek tags; mark cardboard boxes directly.
  12. If the damage is substantial and salvage will take more than 10 hours, loosen tightly packed document boxes, books and pamphlets so they do not jam into the shelves.
  13. Do not separate the remaining dry books and documents when the relative humidity is high. If the RH remains high during cleaning and repairing of the storage areas, remove to an air conditioned room. However, evacuate undamaged diskettes because they are sensitive to a high relative humidity.
  14. Meetings will be held at the beginning and end of each day to review strategy and to keep up morale.
  15. The shelves will be repaired and cleaned after the books and documents are removed.


Be extremely careful when handling wet materials. All of them are very fragile, including their paper boxes. If the boxes have disintegrated replace them with new containers. Don't unpack structurally sound containers (although they may be reinforced by packing inside plastic crates). Fill cartons and crates three- quarters full. Keep identification labels with objects. (Don't mark wet paper, but picture frames and reels can be marked with a grease pencil.) To avoid mechanical damage, do not stack materials in piles or on the floor.


Single sheets of paper:

Do not try to separate but interleave the folders every two inches with freezer paper and pack.

Watercolors, maps, and manuscripts with soluble media:

Do not blot the surface. Quickly freeze or dry.

Coated papers:

Keep wet by packing in boxes lined with garbage bags, then freeze.

Framed prints and drawings:

If time and space permit, unframe and pack as for single sheets.

Maps, plans, oversize prints, and manuscripts:

Sponge standing water out of map drawers. Remove the drawers from the cabinet, ship and freeze them stacked up with 1" x 2" strips of wood between each drawer. Pack loose, flat maps in bread trays, flat boxes, or plywood sheets covered in polyethylene. Bundle rolled maps very loosely to go in small numbers to the freezer, unless facilities are available for conservators to unroll them.


Don't open or close wet books or remove wet book covers. If the water is dirty, wash the books before freezing. Do not wash open books and those with water soluble media. Wash closed books in tubs of cold running water and dab away (do not rub) mud with a sponge. Time and facilities may limit this treatment.

Lay a sheet of freezer paper around the cover, and pack spine down in a milk crate or cardboard carton.

Leather, parchment and vellum bindings are an immediate priority because they distort and disintegrate in water. Books with coated papers should be kept wet by packing inside boxes lined with garbage bags, then frozen.


Drain off excess water and take to a work area for immediate drying. Transport horizontally if you can. If not, carry the painting facing toward you, holding the side of the frame with the palms of your hands. Larger paintings should be carried by two people. The order of removal and treatment is: First, the most highly valued; second, the least damaged; third, slightly damaged and fourth, severely damaged.


If the diskettes are wet, pack them upright in containers of cold distilled water. Make arrangements to air dry.



If storage boxes are badly damaged, transfer the discs, up to five at a time, to milk crates. Pad the bottoms of the crates with ethafoam and interleave with ethafoam every 25 records to absorb shocks. Always support the discs vertically and hold the discs by their edges. Avoid shocks and jolts during transport.

Sound and video tapes:

Pack vertically into egg crates or cardboard cartons. Do not put excessive weight on the sides of the reels or cassettes.


Salvage without delay these historic photographs:

Other photographs should be kept wet in containers of fresh cold water until they are either air dried or frozen. If allowed to partially dry, they will stick together. Pack inside plastic garbage pails or garbage bags inside boxes. Keep to a minimum the immersion time to treatment or freezing.

Prints, negatives, and transparencies:

Salvage color photographs first, then prints, then black and white negatives and transparencies. If facilities and personnel are available, air dry. Pack and freeze if not.

Motion pictures:

Open the film can, fill it with water, and replace lid. Pack into plastic pails or cardboard cartons lined with garbage bags. Ship to a film processor for rewashing and drying.


Microforms in rolls:

Do not remove the films from their boxes. Hold cardboard boxes (and their labels) together with rubber bands. Fill boxes with water, then wrap 5 cartons of film into a block with plastic wrap. Pack the blocks into a heavy duty cardboard box lined with 3 garbage bags. Label as wet film and ship to a microfilm processor.

Aperture cards:

Pack and freeze.

Microfilm strips in jackets:

Pack and freeze.

Diazo microfiche:

Pack, freeze, and make arrangements to air dry.


Separate from other documents, pack in crates or flat boxes, and freeze.



Ideally, this treatment should be done by a conservator.

Initially, set up tabletops padded with blotters and covered with plastic.

Separate the merely wet paintings from those showing structural damage. Signs of structural damage are tears in the canvas, flaking, lifting, and dissolving of paint and ground layers. Let the structurally damaged paintings dry, face up in a horizontal position, on the tables.

Structurally sound paintings on canvas are dried in the following way:

Set up several more layers of blotter on the table, followed by a layer of tissue paper. Unframe the painting, but don't remove it from its stretcher. Lay it face down on this surface, making sure the tissue is not wrinkled. Cut blotters to the inside dimensions of the stretcher frame. Cut a sheet of plywood or thick masonite to the same dimensions, or smaller to fit inside the stretcher keys. Cover the back of the canvas with a blotter (if the canvas is large and more than one blotter is necessary, butt the blotters end-to-end), then the board, and finally weights. Change the blotter until the canvas is dry. If the tissue on the front has any tendency to stick to the paint layer, leave it in place.


The diskettes should be removed from their jackets, washed, and dried. Cut the edge of the jacket with non-magnetic scissors and remove the diskette with gloved hands. Wash in several water baths (photo trays) or distilled water, and dry with lint free towels. When the crisis is over, insert the diskettes into a new jacket (cannibalized from a new diskette; this can be reused) and copy with a disk drive. The drive heads should be cleaned frequently.



Remove the discs from their sleeves and jackets. If labels have separated, mark the center of disc with a grease pencil and keep track of the label. Jackets, sleeves, and labels may be dried like other paper materials. If dirt has been deposited on the discs, they may be washed in a 10% solution of Kodak Photo Flo in distilled water. Air dry the discs on supports that permit free circulation of air.

Reel to reel tapes:

If the exterior of the tape is dirty, wash the tape (still wound on its reel) with lukewarm water. Support the tape vertically and air dry it, or air dry by laying it on sheets of newsprint spread over plastic covered tables. The box can be air dried as well. If the reels are still dirty, remove the tape and wash the reel with detergent and water. An alternative is to replace the reel. Return the tape to its original box, after the box has dried. Replace the box if badly damaged.


Dismantle the cassette and dry as for reel to reel tapes.

Audio cassettes:

If there are no master copies, dismantle the cassette and air dry the tape as above. Rerecord the tape after drying. It is difficult to determine the condition of sealed cassettes. Copy them in any case.


The first priority is to dry wet collodion photographs and daguerreotypes. The recovery rate may not be very high.

Case photographs:

Remove the assembly from the case. Carefully fold back the preserver frame, cut the sealing tape (if present) and take the assembly apart. Place daguerreotypes face up on blotters with the case components beside them. Wet collodion photographs should be dried in a similar way emulsion side up.

Wet collodion glass negatives and unmounted case photographs:

Dry emulsion side up on blotters

Prints, negatives and transparencies:

In order of preference, the drying methods are: air dry, freeze, thaw and air dry, and freeze dry. Vacuum drying will make the photographs stick together into a lump. If the photographs have been immersed in dirty water, clean them before air drying or freezing.

Time and facilities may modify the following:

  • Black and white prints and negatives:

    Wash for half an hour in changes of cold water. Gently swab off stubborn dirt from the surface. Rinse with Kodak Photo Flo solution.

  • Color prints:

    Wash as above, but for a shorter time.

  • Color negatives and transparencies:

    Wash as for black and white negatives. A few varieties require bathing in a stabilizer prior to drying.

  • Color negatives:

    Rinse for 1 minute using Kodak C41 stabilizer.

  • Ektachrome Transparencies:

    Rinse 10-15 seconds in Kodak E6 stabilizer.

  • Kodachrome:

    No stabilizer required.

  • Eastman Color Film:

    Send to a Kodak Laboratory.

Air drying:

Remember to keep the photographs wet until they are separated from each other and their enclosures. If the photographs have been previously frozen, thaw them. If it appears that the photographs could dry and stick together during thawing, immerse again in cold water. Dry the photographs emulsion side up on blotters, paper or nylon screen.


Aperture cards:

At present, the only treatment is a time-consuming one. Remove the film chips from their mounts. Wash the chips and remount them.

Microfilm strips in jackets:

Cut the strips from the jackets with sleeve cutters. Wash and dry the film and insert into new jackets.

Diazo microfiche and rolls:

Check for readability. If the photograph has blistered, discard and replace with a print from the security copy. If it has not delaminated, wash in cool water and dry on blotters or a lint- free cloth.


Review disaster operations. Change plan accordingly. Send thanks to all who helped. Inspect collections over the next year to prevent mold outbreaks. Publish the results to aid other institutions.

Betty Walsh, Conservator
Provincial Archives of British Columbia
655 Belleville Street
Victoria, BC V8V 1X4 Canada


Notes for the chart

The chart reproduced on the center spread of the Newsletter was written as a ready reference in our disaster plan. It is modeled on a table of recovery priorities written by Julia Eulenberg. I have enlarged it to include handling and packing procedures for the variety of materials in our collection.

(The following is a rearranged version of the chart originally published in WAAC Newsletter)

Salvage of Water-damaged Archival Collections
"Salvage at a Glance"


Manuscripts, documents and small drawings

Freeze or dry within 48 hours
Don't separate single sheets

Interleave between folders and pack in milk crates or cartons

Air, vacuum, or freeze dry

Watercolors, and other soluble media

Immediately freeze or dry
Do not blot

Interleave between folders and pack in milk crates or cartons

Air or freeze dry

Maps; oversize prints and manuscripts

Freeze or dry within 48 hours
Don't separate single sheets

Pack in map drawers, bread trays, flat boxes or poly covered plywood

Air, vacuum, or freeze dry

Coated papers

Immediately pack, then freeze or dry within 48 hours

Keep wet in containers lined with garbage bags

Freeze dry only

Framed prints and drawings

Freeze or dry within 48 hours

Unframe if possible, then pack as for manuscripts or maps above

Once unframed and unmatted, air or freeze dry


Books and pamphlets

Freeze or dry within 48 hours
Do not open or close, do not separate covers

Separate with freezer paper, pack spine down in milk crate or cardboard box

Air, vacuum, or freeze dry

Leather and vellum bindings

Immediately freeze
Do not open or close, do not separate covers

Separate with freezer paper, pack spine down in milk crate or cardboard box

Air or freeze dry

Books and periodicals with coated papers

Immediately pack. Freeze or dry within 48 hours
Do not open or close, do not separate covers

Keep wet; pack spine down in containers lined with garbage bags

Freeze dry only



Immediately dry

Drain and carry horizontally

Pack face up without touching paint layer

Air dry. See instructions


Floppy Diskettes

Immediately pack
Do not touch diskette surface with bare hands

Contact supplier for best packing method

Contact supplier for best drying method



Dry within 48 hours. Freezing is untested; if it is necessary, freeze at above 0 F (-18 C)

Hold disks by their edges. Avoid shocks

Pack vertically in ethafoam-padded plastic crates

Air dry

Sound and videotapes

Freezing is untested; if it is necessary, freeze at above -10 C

Pack vertically into plastic crates or cardboard cartons.
Don't put any heavy weight on the sides of reels or cassettes

Air dry


Wet Collodion photographs (ambrotypes, tintypes, pannotypes, wet collodion negatives)

Recovery rate is low. Immediately dry

Handle with care--glass supports or glazing

Pack horizontally in padded container

Air dry face up. Never freeze


Immediately dry

Handle with care -- usually cased behind glass

Pack horizontally in padded container

Air dry face up

Nitrates with soluble emulsions

Immediately freeze

Do not blot

Air dry; test freeze drying

Prints, negatives, and transparencies

Freeze or dry within 72 hours.

Salvage order:

  1. color photographs
  2. prints
  3. negatives and transparencies

Do not touch emulsions with bare hands

Keep in cold water. Pack in containers lined with garbage bags

Order of preference for drying:

  1. air dry
  2. thaw and air dry
  3. freeze dry

Do not vacuum dry

Motion Pictures

Rewash and dry within 72 hours

Fill film cans with cold water and pack in plastic pails or cardboard cartons lined with garbage bags

Arrange for film processor to rewash and dry

Microfilm rolls

Rewash and dry within 72 hours

Do not remove from boxes; hold cartons together with rubber bands

Fill boxes with water, and pack (in blocks of 5) in a cardboard box lined with garbage bags

Arrange for a microfilm processor to rewash and dry

Aperture cards

Freeze or dry within 48 hours

Keep wet inside a container lined with garbage bags

Air dry

Jacketed Microfilm

Freeze or dry within 72 hours

Keep wet inside a container lined with garbage bags

Air dry

Diazo fiche

Last priority for salvage

Pack in drawers or cartons

Air dry

Betty Walsh, Conservator, Provincial Archives of British Columbia

The following references were used:

Barton, John P. and Wellheiser, Johanna G. ed. An Ounce of Prevention: A Handbook on Disaster Contingency Planning for Archives, Libraries, and Record Centres. Toronto: Toronto Area Archivists Group, 1985.

Canadian Conservation Institute. "Emergency Treatment for Water- Damaged Paintings on Canvas." CCI Note 10/5. Ottawa: CCI, April 1986.

Eastman Kodak. "Treatment of Water-Damaged Film". n.d. (typewritten).

Eulenberg, Julia Niebuhr. Handbook for the Recovery of Water-Damaged Business Records. Prairie Village, Kansas: ARMA, 1986.

Hendriks, Klaus B. and Lesser, Brian. "Disaster Preparedness and Recovery: Photographic Materials." American Archivist 46 (Winter 1983).

Langelier, Gilles, and Wright, Sandra. "Contingency Planning for Cartographic Archives." Archivaria 13 (Winter 1981-82): 47-58.

McWilliams, Jerry. The Preservation and Restoration of Sound Recordings. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1979.

Public Archives of Canada. "Archives Branch Contingency Plan." Ottawa, Public Archives, September 21, 1982.

Upton, M.S., and Pearson, C. Disaster Planning and Emergency Treatments in Museums, Art Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Allied Institutions. Canberra: Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material Incorporated, 1978.

Waters, Peter. Procedures for Salvage of Water-Damaged Library Materials 2nd ed. Washington: Library of Congress, 1979.

Betty Walsh
Conservator Provincial Archives of British Columbia
655 Belleville Street
Victoria, BC V8V 1X4 Canada

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