How to Keep Precious Books and Documents Dry

News subtitle

Dartmouth Library preservation experts offer tips on avoiding flood damage.

Dartmouth Library conservators work on flooded historic documents.
Lizzie Curran, a Dartmouth Library assistant conservator, inspects Strafford, Vt., Historical Society documents that were drying out after being damaged by floods last month while summer intern Jacky Martin packs some books to go to a freezer in the Dartmouth conservation lab. (Photo by Jamie Dalton)

In her work as collections conservator in the Collection Management and Preservation department at Dartmouth Library, Deborah Howe is used to handling books that need some tender loving care. 

She and her team of conservators repair books that are returned to Dartmouth libraries in less than perfect condition, with damaged bindings, torn pages, or broken endpapers. In the conservation lab at Baker Library, they carry out repairs on this material as well as items from Rauner, ensuring that these items remain functional for access into the future. Another focus is preventative measures, such as sewing pamphlets into protective covers and making custom enclosures for very fragile material. The department also oversees the Collections Action and Response Team, CART , which is responsible for recovery of damaged material in case of a disaster. The department has a stock of supplies including rolls of plastic, crates, and protective clothing, ready for a recovery effort.

But two days spent volunteering in Strafford, Vt., following historic and catastrophic flooding across Vermont and the Northeast in early July presented Howe and the team with a new and daunting challenge: how to help save a collection of historic documents, diaries, photographs, books, and other materials that had been submerged in floodwaters filling part of the basement of an education building at the Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford.

Morrill, a Vermont congressman and senator best known for the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862, was born in Strafford, an Upper Valley town about 20 miles from Hanover, in 1810. The Justin Morrill Homestead welcomes visitors and school groups to the site to teach about Morrill’s legacy of support for education and the 105 land grant colleges and universities in the United States.

The distinctive pink Gothic Revival house where Morrill lived remained dry after widespread flooding in Vermont dumped up to 9 inches of rainfall on July 10 and 11. But when staff went to check on an education building at the complex a week later, they discovered the basement was flooded.

Meanwhile, Jamie Dalton, preservation and project management assistant at the conservation lab, had suggested that the department as a team could volunteer for any needed salvage recovery efforts, and Howe had gotten in touch with Rachel Onuf. 

Howe asked Onuf, the director of the Vermont Historical Records Program and a founding member of the Vermont Arts and Culture Disaster and Resilience Network, if she needed help. Dartmouth was giving employees a day off to volunteer with the flood recovery efforts and Howe hoped that their team could find a volunteer opportunity together where their specialized knowledge and skills might be useful.

Onuf said that help was needed in moving books out of the education building at the Morrill Homestead. The books, stored on upper floors, were dry, but there were concerns about the structural integrity of the building, so Howe and Dartmouth Library team members Dalton, Assistant Conservator Lizzie Curran, and summer intern Jacky Martin, along with experts from the Vermont Department of Historic Preservation, started organizing and packing the books to be moved to the Vermont State Library.

“And then I kept hearing someone say, ‘There’s stuff in the basement,’” Howe recounts.

When Howe saw two state disaster recovery experts putting on hazmat suits to go down into the standing water on the lower floor, she knew that they might be dealing with a situation more complex than just moving books out of the building. The Strafford Historical Society had been storing some of its collections in the basement of the education center.

When the state workers started bringing up photographs, papers, and books that had been submerged in floodwaters for a week, “We very quickly shifted gears,” Howe says. The team started trying to assess what could be saved and how best to save it. At first they attempted to prioritize items for rescue, but when Onuf suggested, “Why don’t we just try to save everything,” Howe says, it was a welcome approach that energized the team.

Some of the collection was immediately boxed up and taken offsite for storage while the Dartmouth team began working on the most waterlogged items. Howe says that luck was on their side because it was a sunny, dry day and they set up tables and began laying photographs and pieces of paper out to dry in the sun. The pages of ledger books and diaries were fanned out to allow sunlight and dry air to get in between and framed items were removed from their frames to allow photographs and artwork to dry.

Associate Dean of Libraries, Collections and Content Strategies Qiana Johnson encouraged the Dartmouth team to go back for a second day of volunteering, for which Onuf says she was grateful. By the end of the second day of work, everything was out of the basement and the collections were dried out to the extent they could be and taken to other locations for storage. Howe brought seven crates of historic books back to the conservation lab. The books are currently in deep freeze in a commercial-sized freezer. Freezing the books will arrest any mold growth and give conservators time to determine next steps for treating the books.

Howe calls the situation in Strafford “the worst we’ve had” as a conservation team and says it was gratifying to be able to put their skills to work preserving irreplaceable pieces of Vermont and New England history.

As extreme weather events due to climate change and a warming planet hit regions across the country, both Howe and Onuf say it is more likely that libraries, museums, and homeowners will see events like the one that plagued Vermont in July impacting collections. Anything stored in basements in flood-prone areas may be at risk, and both recommended that homeowners prepare themselves for flooded residences and also gain some knowledge about how to save items that have been through a flood.

Among their recommendations: 

  • Keep important things out of the basement. Howe says that attics can also be inhospitable to paper items, because of the risk of leaks, temperature extremes, or nibbling by pests. 
  • Determine what’s valuable to you and set priorities for safe storage. Howe suggests that owners of historically significant photographs and other items can scan and print out copies. 
  • If the worst happens, Onuf says that taking a deep breath is the first order of business. “I understand the impulse to throw it out, especially if it’s dirty and wet,” she says. “But recognize that it may be salvageable.” 
  • If your books or documents are damaged by flooding, dry out paper as quickly as possible since mold can set in within 72 hours. Fan out pages and put paper towels in between to absorb moisture. Take advantage of fresh air and sunlight, and use fans to increase air circulation. 
  • The Massachusetts-based Northeast Document Conservation Center can treat paper and parchment items and offers lots of advice and information.

Howe says that it can be easy to forget what is actually in boxes of family memorabilia stored in basements. But if something good comes out of the recent flooding, it might be to remind residents of flood-prone areas to take stock and move collections to higher ground. 

“We need someone to come up with a catchy slogan to help people remember,” Onuf says. “If you wouldn’t keep your valuables there, don’t keep books and paper items there either.”

Sarah Taylor