(+) How to Preserve Water-Soaked Books and Papers in an Emergency

The following is a Plus Edition article, written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

Hurricane season is upon us and we should learn from the experiences of past storms. The recent Harvey and Irma hurricanes and flooding taught all of us again that paper is a very fragile storage medium for old records. However, paper is also the most common storage method in use today. The news reports from the recent hurricanes told of numerous libraries, public records offices, and more that had water in their offices. In some cases, the water reached records that should be saved for centuries. Many families also lost family documents, old photos, and even examples of their children’s art work. Unfortunately, water-soaked paper documents will only last for a few days unless treated immediately.

For the best-known loss of records by water damage, ask the U.S. Census Bureau about water-soaked documents. Most U.S. genealogists have been told that the 1890 census records was “destroyed by fire” in 1921. In fact, the fire damaged only a small percentage of the records. Far more damage was caused by the firehoses of the fire department called in to battle the blaze. Most of the damage was caused by water being poured onto the fire, water that soon seeped into millions of otherwise undamaged records. The fire did not go above the basement but water poured into the upper floors drained into the basement, extinguishing the fire. Unfortunately, in the process of water draining through the upper floors, a high percentage of the otherwise undamaged documents became soaked with water.

Disaster planning and recovery were almost unknown in 1921. Nobody had the proper equipment to salvage water-soaked paper documents. Once the flames were extinguished, everyone went home except for the night watchmen on patrol. No immediate effort was made to preserve the water-soaked documents. The following morning, Census Director Sam Rogers reported the extensive damage to the 1890 schedules, estimating 25 percent destroyed, with 50 percent of the remainder damaged (but not destroyed) by water, smoke, and fire.

The records sat and gathered mildew for thirteen years. Even though only 25 percent of the census records had been destroyed in the fire, all the records were eventually destroyed by Department of Commerce personnel in 1934 or 1935. (The exact date apparently was never recorded.) You can read more about the fate of the 1890 U.S. census on the National Archives’ web site at http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1996/spring/1890-census-1.html.

Whether water-soaked by firemen or by a tropical storm or even by a burst water pipe, today’s technology can usually save water-soaked documents. This is equally true for a major collection of government records that fills a warehouse or for a shoebox full of important family papers, stored in a closet below the upstairs bathroom. A genealogist who knows what prompt actions need to be taken can quickly act to minimize the damage. The key word here is “prompt.” Any delay can result in far more damage than is necessary.

First Things First

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