Drying a wet book

After a flood, burst pipe or leak, here's how to restore books damaged by water.

Preparing the books 

  • Drying wet or damp books requires plenty of space and time to carry out the process. Spend time planning what to do as the work can be slow and labour intensive. 
  • Books should be dried in a separate space that is clean, ventilated, cool and dry. 
  • Freezing can be used as a method of holding wet material in a stabilised state until it can be treated. If the item has shiny coated paper, first interleave each page with absorbent material to prevent the pages from sticking together. 

Preparing the workspace 

Before you begin, cover the workspace with plastic sheeting. 

You will need: 

  • absorbent material (paper towels, blotter or newsprint) 
  • rubber gloves and protective clothing 
  • thin metal spatula or bone folder 
  • pieces of polythene or polyester as isolation layers 
  • electric fans (pedestal fans, if possible) 
  • narrow strips of acid-free paper or card. 

Stage 1: Very wet books 

  • Wear rubber gloves. 
  • Lift book from water holding firmly and allow all excess water to run and drip until all free water has drained away. 
  • If books have been lying in dirty water, they can be rinsed under gentle running water from the tap to remove mud or loosely bound dirt. Do not brush or rub. 
  • Proceed to Stage 2. 

Stage 2: Very damp books 

  • Spread absorbent paper or blotter over plastic on workspace. 
  • Stand books on their ends on absorbent material, supported against each other if necessary. Do not try to open the pages at this stage. 
  • Position fans and switch on a low level to create soft, gentle ventilation, not a wind. Keep fans operating continuously during the drying process. 
  • Change absorbent material on the workbench as often as necessary to soak up moisture. 
  • Remove damp material from area to reduce humidity build-up. 
  • When no more water seeps out of books proceed to Stage 3. 

Stage 3: Slightly damp books 

  • When pages can safely be parted, lay book flat on absorbent paper or blotter. Continue to replace absorbent material whenever it becomes damp. 
  • Interleave the book pages with absorbent materials larger than the item’s page size. Work from the back of book forward, interleaving one sheet between batches of 20-30 pages at a time. Never increase the thickness of a book by more than one-third to prevent damaging the spine. 
  • Continue interleaving and change absorbent sheets as they become damp until interleaves are comparatively dry. This may require leaving the interleaves overnight. The item pages should now be dry but will still be cool to touch. 
  • Alternatively, stand the book upside down on its head or end. This reverses any stress on the binding during the drying process. 
  • Turn on fans to create a gentle ventilation. Check each book daily. When pages no longer feel cool, proceed to Stage 4. 

Stage 4: Dry pages but damp covers 

  • Lay book flat on layers of absorbent material. Isolate damp covers from text block by inserting a sheet of polyester film between them (slightly larger than the covers). 
  • Cover book with more absorbent material. Place a flat board or sheet of glass on top and weight it. Several books can be placed in a pile to help weight each other. Always separate them with plastic film sandwiched between absorbent layers. 
  • Continue using the fans to speed the drying. Good ventilation is necessary to prevent mould. 
  • Replace damp absorbent material and remove it from drying area to reduce humidity. If required, books can be lightly pressed to ensure shape is maintained. 

Reshelving after drying 

  • Once the books are completely dry and their original shape has been retained, they are ready for reshelving. 
  • Return the books to a stable, clean and dry storage environment: the affected area should have been thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and dried. 

Further reading 

Conservation advice

If you have further questions or would like specific advice about conservation, please contact us through:
Ask a Librarian

We are unable to give advice on the conservation treatment of heritage items. We recommend you contact a professional conservator, who can assess each item and recommend options. A conservator will charge a fee.