CORVALLIS - Important papers and paper-based materials that were damaged in the severe flooding that struck the Pacific Northwest last week most likely can be salvaged, according to archival specialists at Oregon State University.
Family photos, marriage licenses, children's birth certificates, favorite books and, yes, even old tax returns can be saved if the only problem is moisture. The key, specialists say, is to remove the dampness as soon as possible, before mold sets in.
The simplest approach is to lay the damp items on blotter paper, which will absorb moisture, according to Elizabeth Nielsen, an archival specialist at OSU. Newspaper should be avoided because its ink may run, she added.
"You should also be careful about putting photographs on top of one another," Nielsen said. "Not only can the emulsion stick, but ink on the back of photos can run and cause more damage than the moisture."
A key to drying paper is air circulation, according to Larry Landis, assistant archivist at OSU. Electric fans, when used safely, can significantly aid in drying and preservation, he said.
The archivists' secret weapon, though, is the freezer.
"When wet materials can't be dealt with immediately, stick them in the freezer," Landis said. "It will stop the deterioration of the paper and, if it's a frost-free freezer, the fan will pull the moisture right out of the materials. Essentially, you freeze-dry them."
Using a freezer also helps persons with water-damaged materials to prioritize the restoration work, a key to success, Landis said. Photographs and important documents usually take priority and can be worked on while the other materials are put in the freezer.
That method has worked frequently for the OSU archives office, which on several occasions has been forced to deal with vast quantities of water-damaged books and documents. One such occasion took place in the early 1990s, when vandals started a fire at the OSU mink farm. Water damage from the fighting of that fire threatened thousands of research documents.
The restoration work was able to save almost all of those documents.
However, damage from water isn't always direct, according to Landis. With standing water still in many dwellings, an unappreciated threat lingers.
"One lesson we have learned is that books and papers don't have to be directly in the water to suffer damage," Landis said. "The extra humidity from all water in the vicinity is enough to trigger the growth of mold."
Sunlight is not ideal for drying materials because the exposure can make them split, warp or fade. But, Landis pointed out, those options are better than mold.
Nielsen said that the best option for drying books is to place absorbent paper between the wet pages - "inter-leaving" - and lay the books flat.
For large volumes of paper, she said, bring out the fishing line.
"One way to deal with a lot of papers is to string fishing line across the room and use it like a clothesline," Nielsen said. "Turn an oscillating fan on them and it's amazing how fast papers can dry out. If you hang 50 papers, by the time you get to the 50th one the first one may already be dry."
Textiles, leathers and other "organic" materials can be severely damaged by water and difficult to treat. They should be air-dried and, if necessary, "shaped" by gently padding them with towels or blotter paper.
Photographs can be extremely fragile, Landis said. He suggests rinsing off the mud with clear water, but not touching the surface. Film negatives or motion picture film should be immediately immersed in clean, cold water and taken to a film processing laboratory for treatment.
Despite precautions, sometimes mold does form. The OSU archivists suggest getting moldy documents and photographs copied.
To remove residual musty smell, Landis said, materials should be put in a cool, dry place for a couple of days. If the musty smell remains, put the books in an open box and put that inside a larger, closed container with an open box of baking soda.
"Just don't let the deodorizer touch the books," Landis said. "Leave the books there for a few days, and check them daily for mold."