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Need advice on flood-damaged documents?

Posted on 8 January 2016

Following severe flooding in York and surrounding areas, we have put together the following guidance to help flood-hit residents and businesses recover important documents, photographs and books.

Our Conservation team are regularly faced with the challenges posed by water damage. While in some cases the damage to materials can be so severe it can’t be saved, the good news is that in our experience, the majority of books, papers and photographs can be salvaged from a flooded area.


Tom Murphy, Worn books at the library of Merton College, Oxford. CC BY-SA 3.0

Worn books at the library of Merton College, Oxford - Tom Murphy. CC BY-SA 3.0


It is important to start salvage and treatment as soon as possible, as the quicker this is begun the more straightforward the process will be; but sometimes these items are not the first priority in an emergency situation, and we are aware that you may be faced with material in various states of saturation and damage. Whatever the situation, please don’t worry – in the majority of cases there is something that can be done to help.

Our main recommendations, where space and resources allow,would be:

  • Air dry material in as cool an environment as possible. The best conditions for mould growth are warm and damp, so wherever possible try to avoid heat sources when drying out wet materials (such as radiators, irons or open fires).
  • Air circulation is very important, so do try to open windows or use fans wherever possible.
  • Documents and photographs should be separated and dried flat, image side up, on an absorbent material with no pattern or colour, such as blotting paper or kitchen towels.
  • Hardback books should be stood on end, with the leaves separated and fanned out. This is more difficult with paperback books or very large, heavy books, which may need to be supported.
  • If electronic devices (such as laptops and external hard drives) have been submerged for any significant period of time, it is unlikely that the data on them will be recoverable. For devices that have had only limited contact with water it is possible that data may be salvageable. Do ensure any electronic items are completely dry before attempting to switch them on.

Items that are air-dried are likely to dry distorted rather than flat, and they may not appear as neat as they did before they were wet. The more frequently you are able to change the wet blotting material around your items for dry material, the quicker the moisture will be taken away. This can also help to reduce the amount of distortion that the item will suffer as it dries in the air.

Please remember at all times that wet material is generally more vulnerable than dry material, and you will need to handle these items with extra care. Please also remember that material that was affected by the flood water will still retain the contaminants of the flood water once the water has evaporated, and may still need to be treated by a conservator. It’s also worth remembering that the above recommendations are aimed at the survival of your material and further work by a Conservator may be needed to return the material to its pre-flood damaged condition.



Water damaged volume under treatment in Conservation

Water damaged volume under treatment in Conservation


If you would like to know more, we recommend the British Library’s ‘Salvage’ booklet. This publication is aimed at library and archive collections, rather than potentially smaller, personal collections of material; however the principles behind the advice are the same for the materials in both contexts, and this will help you decide on what your first actions should be to help your possessions.

If you are at all concerned about any of your material please do get in touch, though without an in-depth assessment by a trained Conservation professional it is very difficult to offer specific guidance. We would always recommend seeking the advice of a trained Conservation professional if you are unsure.

If you would like further advice, we will be holding a drop-in advice session at York Explore (Marriott Room) on Friday 15th January from 3:00pm-6:00pm. Do come along and bring your flood damaged documents, books and photographs with you.