After the storm: How to save family photos and records

Consumer Reports News: August 30, 2011 01:11 PM

Now comes the heartbreaking part of the post-Irene cleanup. How to save those family photos and mementos that got wet. Experts recommend that if you can't clean an item you should dispose of it, especially if it has come in contact with water contaminated with sewage. But for those irreplaceable items that are dear to your heart, the National Archives says there are a few things you can try.

Many of your paper records can be air dried but expect some physical distortion. Spread out the records on top of clean blotting material (blotter paper, unprinted newsprint, paper towels, rags, mattress pads) in a cool dry location with plenty of air circulation. Change the blotters as they become wet. Be careful not to pack them together too closely, the National Archives advises. Questions about the treatment of particularly valuable wet records should be referred to a preservation professional. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works can help you with that.

And while this may seem counter intuitive, the National Archives recommends that wet books, documents, or photographs that cannot be air dried within two days be frozen to inhibit mold growth. You can defrost and dry them out later when you have more time and space.

Glossy materials such as paperback book covers, magazines and art books are the most likely to stick together. To prevent that, spread out loose glossy materials in one layer for air drying. If you have a bound book with glossy pages, put pieces of wax paper in between the pages. Fan the pages open and stand the book on end. Invert the book later to ensure even drying.

Most photographic prints, negatives and slides may be air dried face up. Change blotting material beneath the photographs as it becomes soaked, says the National Archives. Contemporary prints and negatives that are still wet and have stuck together may separate after soaking in cold water, although that could cause them to be further damaged. Prints for which there is no longer a negative, should be referred to a conservator.

For framed items, remove the backing material from the frame. If the artwork is not stuck to the glass, carefully remove it from the frame and let it air dry. If the work appears to be stuck to the glass, do not attempt to remove it. Dry it intact with the glass side down.

Your aim is to prevent the growth of mold. So your best bet is to remove the items from the conditions that encourage mold growth -- high temperature, high humidity, stagnant air, and darkness. And while the sun can be your friend, too much can fade an already compromised photo or piece of paper.

Finally, the National Archives says that’s it’s important to accept that flood damage to some items may be irreversible. The treatment of objects of high monetary, historic, or sentimental value should only be performed in consultation with a conservator.

Mary H.J. Farrell

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