Recently, there was a small fire in one of the research labs on campus. Fortunately, the sprinkler system deployed and Ames firefighters responded quickly and effectively, so no one was injured and the building was saved. We have a saying in the preservation field: “Every disaster is a water disaster.” O.k., so that’s not always literally true, as tornadoes and earthquakes wouldn’t necessarily involve water (though they might!) However, in the case of fires, if there is anything left to save, then it will likely be sooty, dirty… and wet.
“Wringing out” a water-saturated notebook with a press-board in the sink.
Such was the case with a dozen or so lab notebooks that were brought to us late in the day of the fire. All of the notebooks were wet, but some were completely saturated, dripping in rivulets, the covers mushy, the textblocks bloated. Some of them were also very dirty, covered in grit and soot. We quickly separated the notebooks into salvage categories and got to work. The notebooks, as part of the active research of the lab, could not be spirited away to our Wei T’o Freeze Dryer for its usual two-month freeze-drying cycle, so we decided to blot, airdry, and interleave instead.
Interleaving pages with paper towels.
The merely wet notebooks were interleaved with paper towels, a time-consuming but effective low-tech solution. One notebook was just damp, so we stood it on end in front of a gentle fan to air dry. The gritty items were first briefly rinsed in clean water. The most bloated of the lot were “wrung out” by pressing them under a board in the washing sink. About half of the notebooks were so saturated that we had to disbind them by removing their adhesive covers and then prying out the staples along their gutter edge. The freed pages were then careful separated, one by one, and laid out to dry between sheets of blotter under boards and weights.
Disbinding a completely saturated notebook.
The next morning, the interleaving process began all over again, as wet interleaving was removed and fresh, dry paper towels inserted. Likewise, fresh blotter replaced the damp blotter in the stacks of disbound pages. We continued to monitor the materials in this way for another day or two. As each notebook or stack of pages approached the stage of being almost dry, but still very slightly damp, we put them in books presses to flatten out the pages as best we could.
A few of the pages had been written in felt-tip pen, which bled considerably, but the majority of the notebooks were written in ballpoint pen, which remained fairly stable. In all, we salvaged over 2,000 notebooks pages of handwritten data.
When the materials were dry and flattened, we rebound them simply and cost-effectively by post-binding through the 3-ring binder holes of the pages and covers. We used 20-point Bristol board to replace a few of the back cover boards which had been discarded. The results are not “pretty,” but the important information contained in the notebooks was saved, and the materials are now stable.
Water-damaged lab notebook, after treatment.