As April approaches and the rainy season begins, we’re sharing some tips on how to salvage water-damaged photos. At Storyhouse, we always encourage our clients to digitize all of their family memories and important documents before catastrophe strikes, but we know this isn’t always possible during sudden and unexpected bouts of inclement weather.
Here is a quick guide to steps you can take to minimize long-term damage to photos and paper heirlooms. Special thanks to the folks at University of Texas at Austin’s iSchool for providing us with training and materials which helped us distill a plan for you to salvage and protect your valuable documents.
Guidelines for DIY Salvage
First thing’s first. If you are in the midst of recovery mode, an undoubtedly stressful and trying time, take a deep breath and step back so that you can make a realistic assessment of your surroundings. Then, you can prioritize and develop a plan of action. Know that there will likely be items that you will not be able to recover and remember that rushing may cause you to damage fragile items. Before you get to work, remember to:
- Protect yourself first. Check for rotting wood, electrical hazards, etc. Do not work in an unsafe environment.
- Gather necessary materials and prepare a workstation. Wear nitrile or latex gloves when working with flood-damaged materials to protect yourself from potentially hazardous contaminants from the water. When possible, also wear long sleeves, pants, waterproof shoes and N95 respirators. Bonus if you’re able to bring along paper towels, wax paper, clean dishcloths or any other absorbent material to aid in the drying process. Also, twine, tacks and clothespins can be helpful. Clear a dry work area and/or hang a clothing line so that you can start to lay out items to dry.
- Assess the situation. Determine which items are of utmost priority (i.e., items that can’t be replaced and no other copy exists) and make a plan.
Salvaging paper heirloom articles like photos, receipts, documents, and artwork, etc.
- If you are unable to deal with the drying process at the moment, carefully place all items into a plastic bag and then directly into a frost-free freezer. If possible separate some of the most important items using layers of wax paper. These items will hold up in a frozen state, buying you several weeks or even months of time so you can deal with them when you are ready. Once you’re ready to proceed, place your items in a cooler inside an air-conditioned space and allow them to slowly thaw over the course of ~2 days, then proceed with the following steps. Note: If the items are in enclosure like albums or frames, remove them immediately to prevent from sticking. REMEMBER: Do not freeze glass!
- If you are dealing with a pile of wet items, always start by carefully removing items on top and work your way down.
- On a long table, lay out cloth, pillowcases, paper towels, any dry layers you can find to create a barrier between your dry surface and the wet items so they will not dry and stick to the dry surface. If you are limited on space, you can also preemptively crinkle up paper and lay photos and more sturdy items against it in a triangular shape.
- Carefully separate photographs and documents using both hands and lay them flat on your absorbent surface. Make sure nothing is overlapping or the items will stick together as they dry.
- If you don’t have time to separate individual paper stacks, dry them in stacks no more than ¼” high. Photos should always be laid out in single layers.
- If preserving especially old photographs or artwork, consider placing wax paper on top of the item and weighting down just the edges with glass (jars, bottles, etc.) or any small heavy item so they will dry a little more flat.
- If using a clothesline method, hang only sturdy items only on the line. Hanging drenched papers might result in more damage to the item.
- If you have any items that appear as though they are unsalvageable (i.e. they would fall apart if you tried to pick them up), take several photos of the document before attempting to pick it up.
- Try to keep the air moving and reduce humidity in the room where these items are drying to avoid mold growth. Consider using a dehumidifier and fans, but make sure the air circulation is gentle – avoid directly pointing fans at wet materials. Dry for 48 – 72hrs, if possible.
- Once your items are dry and out of danger, you can remove any mold that might have formed with a soot sponge. Cut the sponge into small squares and use slow circular motions to remove mold. Remember to wear a mask, gloves, and long sleeves before attempting this.
- For damaged items you hold especially dear, consider contacting a local photo/document restoration expert or conservator, but note these services can be costly.
Other Valuable Resources
The UT-Austin iSchool has compiled an incredible Quick Tips Guide and a comprehensive list of reputable in-depth resources to help you navigate through your personal salvage. Click here to read their post and to stay informed. Also, call them for advice at 512-903-9564.
Also, the American Institute for Conservation – Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT) has a volunteer-driven hotline set up to respond to the needs of cultural institutions during emergencies and disasters. They provide advice and referrals by phone if you call this phone number: 202-661-8068.
Contact us! We employ trained archivist teams who can help you with the first phase of salvage and with follow-up resources for an hourly rate. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary consultation.
PHOTO CREDIT: *All photos were captured during a salvage effort after the Central Texas Floods of 2015. Storyhouse worked with UT’s iSchool and other volunteer archivists to assist with washed up photos and heirloom items that residents took to local libraries.
Storyhouse is a Texas-based business that preserves family stories, recipes, photos, and documents through multimedia projects. The Olyvia Green project was made possible through a partnership with the Austin Independent School District.
Maggie Mora is Storyhouse’s Marketing Manager and a Jill of all trades. When not working as an ESL teacher or with Storyhouse, she spends an unhealthy amount of time listening to This American Life and reading/absorbing other people’s stories is her favorite pastime.