April 7, 2010
A few weeks ago I saw a Lifehacker post about saving waterlogged books by putting them in the freezer. I’d heard this from an archivist on a listserv last year, too, so I decided to give it a try.
I stopped by my local Half Price Books and picked up two copies of each of four different books. I wanted a paperback, a larger hardcover, a smaller hardcover, and a book with glossy pages.
Although it kind of killed me to do it, I filled up the bathtub and put in the books, weighing them down with heavy objects to keep them submerged. I didn’t have as much time to set up the experiment as I wanted or I would have put the books in a box and slowly filled the tub, more closely replicating flood damage conditions. The books did get a lot wetter this way, though!
The instructions in the Lifehacker piece said to put the books in plastic bags and then stick them in the freezer for up to two weeks. I did so for one copy of each book, although the biggest one didn’t fit properly in the bag, so I stapled it shut. I was worried this would affect my results, but you’ll see that wasn’t really the case.
So then I put the books in the freezer and left them there for two weeks.
I drained the tub and left the second copies of each book there to dry as best as they could. I thought about using the hair dryer to try to dry them out but thought they’d make a better control if I let them just sit for two weeks. Future experiments might include other drying techniques.
Today marked the two-week point so I checked on the books. None of the ones in the bathtub had completely dried, although the one with glossy pages was close. It was, however, stiff and difficult to open or to turn pages. Mold had grown on two of the books (the paperback and the smaller hardback). It’s kind of hard to see in the photographs, but it’s there and it’s kind of gross. There were not only rust-colored and blue-green spots, but the entire top of the book had a layer of fluffy white mold I couldn’t get a good picture of.
So just leaving books to sit and dry doesn’t work very well. But what of the books in the freezer? To be honest, they didn’t do a lot better. The cover of the smaller hardcover book was frozen to the end papers.
Some ice had formed on the outside of the books (which I guess is a little bit of moisture that was pulled out), but mostly they just felt like humongous ice cubes. They were really heavy, made a solid “THUNK” when I placed them on the counter, and were still bloated.
So at least with my method of getting books wet, my interpretation of the freezing directions, and my particular freezer, this definitely didn’t “pull the excess water out of the book” as the Lifehacker post suggests. A commenter on that post, though, points out that the Iowa State University Extension specialist who wrote a piece linked in the Lifehacker article says that freezing wet books just puts them on hold, giving you time to assess the damage and figure out what to do with it, not that freezing books wet books would dry them. And this part does seem true: the only way in which the books I kept in the freezer fared better was that there was no mold growth. The Iowa State piece even says you can keep books frozen for years with no additional damage.
From that article and my experiment, it looks like just putting the books in the freezer won’t do more than buy you time to look into drying methods. The linked article does mention commercial freeze-drying procedures that use sublimation (which, you’ll remember from high school chemistry, is when matter goes straight from a solid to a gas without becoming a liquid in between) as a way of drying out books and provides more at-home methods, too. So if you do drop a friend’s book into the tub or have books damaged in a flood, stick them in the freezer–and then start looking into your drying options.
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