Recovering flood-damaged records

Records can get wet as the result of anything from floods to burst pipes. When this occurs, urgent action is required to save records from further damage.

What is flood damage?

Records can get wet from a variety of sources, from the dramatic (a river bursting its banks) to the more mundane (a leaky water pipe). These events are termed 'floods' and all present the same dangers to the records involved. When records have become wet they are extremely vulnerable to damage. This danger increases as time passes, so urgent action is required.

Safety first

In any salvage operation, your own safety is paramount. The first thing to do is to check that the area is safe to enter. Ensure there is no live electricity, no shelving about to collapse and that you have adequate personal protective equipment to shield you from infected water, slippery floors and so on.

Speed is essential

Records need to be salvaged and dried out as soon as possible to prevent the material deteriorating further. If left in a wet, dirty condition the paper will weaken and mould will soon start to grow. Mould digests and stains paper, sometimes irreversibly, and poses a serious health risk to people working with the records. Many inks are water soluble and will run when the document becomes wet. They will continue to run until the document is dried out again.

A dry working area is essential

After a flood, the most important thing is to dry out the wet material and the first step is to ensure that the area you are working in is dry. If you are certain that the source of the flood water has been removed, you could dry out the flood-affected area and work there.

Wet/dry vacuum cleaners or mops and buckets can be used to dry out a water-affected room. If water has soaked into walls, carpets, floors and furniture a dehumidifier may need to be installed, or at least a good flow of air should be provided by opening windows.

If there is some danger of further incursions of water, or it is impossible to dry out the affected storage area, another space should be found that is dry and well ventilated. The wet material should be quickly moved to this space for drying.

What do I salvage first?

You will need to prioritise what you can salvage. Some materials cannot stand being in water for very long at all, while other records can wait a little longer.

You should consider whether there is any material you can afford to write off. If there is, that material can be left to one side while the more important material is salvaged. It can be properly disposed of later. Materials such as current books or newspaper microfilm may be relatively easy to replace so should be put lower on the list of salvage priorities.

Make the water affected material your first priority. Next, you should check all material in the affected area for dampness, whether obviously wet or not, and ensure that anything that is even a little damp is properly dried. Otherwise the material could grow mould.

Once you have decided how much of the material needs to be salvaged, you then have to salvage material in order of fragility. A suggested order is as follows:

  1. Older photographic material such as pre 1950s colour formats, glass plate negatives, deteriorated film negatives, deteriorated black and white prints
  2. Books or pamphlets on coated papers – these papers contain a starch and clay sizing which becomes like glue once it is wet and then allowed to dry
  3. Magnetic media such as audio, video and computer tape
  4. Records with water soluble media, eg hand-annotated maps, watercolour sketches, signatures in red ink
  5. Paper records which you know were very fragile before the flood, eg previously mould-damaged material
  6. Books with hand crafted bindings
  7. More modern photographic material like contemporary colour material, recent black and white prints
  8. Paper based files
  9. Books on uncoated paper
  10. Photocopied reference material.

Drying procedures

Once the flood affected material is salvaged, and a well ventilated, secure drying area of a suitable size has been found, the drying process can begin. If fans and/or dehumidifiers are available these should be installed and left running as they will greatly assist the drying process. Alternatively, open as many windows as you can to keep the air moving and to encourage evaporation.

When preparing material for drying remove any wet packaging material, record any information written on it, and throw the packaging away.

Drying can be a risky process and each material type requires its own drying method to minimise this danger. Here are some simple rules for drying various materials.

Plain paper documents/files

Handle with care as wet paper is extremely fragile. Separate wet sheets and interleave every few pages with paper towels or blotting paper. Spread the paper out as much as possible to ensure proper air circulation. Change the interleaving regularly to ensure rapid drying.


Wet volumes can become badly distorted through water absorption. There is not a lot that can be done about this except to dry the volume out as quickly as possible. To achieve this, interleave the book every few pages with paper towels or blotting paper, sit the book on its base and fan the pages open. Change the interleaving regularly to ensure rapid drying. 


Place wet photographs in a tub of clear water and separate any that are stuck together. Dislodge any dirt by gentle agitation of the clean water, then lay the images face up on kitchen towel. Never wipe the wet emulsion of a photograph.

Coated paper (picture book and magazine paper)

While the items are wet, separate each page and blot excess water off. Stand the books up on absorbent paper and fan the pages open. Keep checking the books and separate any pages that stick together while they dry.

Movie film

Do not allow to dry – place the reels in tubs of clear water and get professional advice on drying.

Magnetic media, optical media

Do not allow to dry – place the items in tubs of clear water and get professional advice on drying.

When the material is dry

Water affected material will never be 'as good as new'. It will be distorted and stained, inks will have run and bindings will have swollen. But if dried as described above, this damage will be minimised. When you are sure the material is dry (which may take up to a week) there is still much work to do.

The material needs to be checked for damage and decisions made as to what is retrievable and what is not. If anything is dirty the dirt should be carefully brushed away with a soft brush. The material should then be placed in new packaging and returned to storage. You should also at this point ensure that the cause of the original flood has been addressed. If this proves impossible the material should be moved to an alternative storage area.

What to do if you have mould

If material has been damp for a long time before salvage, or if too long is taken to dry it out, mould can start to grow. Mould can be a health risk to staff. Depending on the scale of the outbreak, staff may need to use respirators when handling the records. Rapid drying and proper ventilation are both extremely important when dealing with mould-affected records.

Once the mouldy material is dry you may need to consider a program of cleaning and bagging the affected pages. Another option you could consider, depending on the circumstances, is to photocopy the material and destroy the original.

Further advice

Contact the Agency Service Centre. Although we cannot generally offer direct assistance in the event of a flood, we can give professional advice and direct you to suitable private companies that specialise in disaster recovery, as well as private conservators who can help preserve the damaged material.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2016