Paper Doll To the Rescue: How To Save Wet Books & Documents | Best Results Organizing (2023)

Paper Doll To the Rescue: How To Save Wet Books & Documents | Best Results Organizing (1)

For something that’s supposed to be so good for us, water can cause quite a bit of trouble.

If you drop your cell phone in water, people will rush to tell you to stick it in rice, as though your Samsung or iPhone was a nice piece of baked salmon. It seems everyone has heard and shared that little hack for rescuing wet electronics.

For what it’s worth, you actually shouldn’t put your soaked phone in rice. Phone experts say airflow, not rice, is the key. Apple agrees. Desiccants and air-tight pouches can also help.

So, save the San Francisco Treat for your dinner table, OK?

There’s a common expression when people are talking about all their drawers and piles of papers and books. They say, “I’m drowning in paper.” But what happens when your paper drowns?

Have you ever dropped your book in the tub? Failed to zip your backpack up all the way and had a book land in a puddle? Had someone overzealously splash you while you’re reading poolside?

Ever have your garbage disposal eat a fork, spring leaks, and send all the water running down your drain through a cracked pipe and into your cabinets, soaking books on the other side of the wall? (Yes, that is TOO a thing that happens. Stop looking at me like that.)

What happens when a book gets wet? Well, the first thing that happens is cockling. That’s the official term for when paper (especially bound paper) gets wet and bulges out in certain places, presenting a warped, wrinkled, puckered, or creased surface.

Paper Doll To the Rescue: How To Save Wet Books & Documents | Best Results Organizing (2)

The worst part isn’t the cockling though. (C’mon, people, stop laughing at the word “cockling!”) The biggest concern should be mold. Mold can begin growing within 2-to-3 days, and because mold spores can flourish wherever conditions are warm and wet, you want to jump on solving your wet-paper problem right away!

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I should note, Paper Doll is an expert on organizing paper, not restoring it. But I’ve sure had some interesting requests over the years. One client, whose entire library was along a leaking outside wall, wanted to “save” mold-covered books by taking nail scissors and cutting along the edges of the pages to rid them of mold. (No, this wasn’t possible. Not all mold is visible, and mold can be damaging to one’s neurological and respiratory systems. Don’t play around with mold!)

And clients have often asked how to restore important (though not necessarily financially valuable) books, like family Bibles, which have seen better days. For a book with serious financial or sentimental value, please seek the expertise of a professional book restoration service. Check out the website of the The American Institute for Conservationand do a zip code radius search on their Find a Conservator page.


How you deal with a water-damaged book depends on whether the water left your book damp (as if it had been in a sauna), wet (as if you were caught in the rain between your parking space and your building) or soaked all the way through (like the most miserable camping trip, ever)!

If your book is damp, experts advise that you:

  • Hold the book gently by the spine and shake the book side-to-side to rid it of any excess water.
  • Gently remove any debris. (This works better if you’re trying to get stray leaves out of the book dropped in a shallow puddle; if you spilled your milkshake on the book, you’re not going to get bits of chocolate off of the pages so easily.)
  • Cover the surface of wherever you’re going to dry the books with either absorbent paper (like unprinted newsprint — no, NOT actual newspaper!), absorbent towels, or plastic sheeting. This way, as the book dries, the surface you’re using won’t get damaged. The more books you have to restore, the more space you’ll need, as this is often a multi-day process.
  • Stand your book up and fan it out so no part is open more than 60°. Official advice will say to stand the book on its “head” or “tail” which just means that you’re not resting the book on its spine or on the part where it opens. Fanning it out means just that — if viewed from above, it’ll almost look like a fan.

Paper Doll To the Rescue: How To Save Wet Books & Documents | Best Results Organizing (3)

  • If it’s mostly the book cover (of a hardcover book) that’s damp, but not the actual text of the book, put some absorbent paper towels between the “boards” of the cover and the pages. Change as necessary (when the paper has absorbed all it can).
  • Use fans in the room to circulate air so the book will dry, but don’t point the fans directly at the book.
  • If you have a dehumidifier, this is the time to pull it out! Air conditioning is good, too. But none of the air blowing on the book should be so strong as to make the pages flutter.
  • Once the book is completely dry, lay it on its back cover, sandwiched between two wooden boards, and place something heavy (like a few bricks or an old-fashioned, massive hardcover dictionary) on top of it, making sure the spine (of the previously damp book) isn’t smushed by the weight. Or, you can use a book press, if you happen to have one of these babies hanging around.

Paper Doll To the Rescue: How To Save Wet Books & Documents | Best Results Organizing (4)

RestorationMaster suggests that for paperbacks (which are usually more slender than hard cover books), you can hang the book on a bit of fishing line or string to help it air dry. (But only do this if the book isn’t soaking wet, or the its own weight could cause the book or its binding to tear.)

If the book is wet, think about the value of your time vs. the value of the book. If it’s a $300 textbook, your willingness to carry on may be different from what it would be if it’s a paperback novel.

  • Cover your work surface, as described above.
  • Lay the book flat and open it carefully (so as not to rip any of the wet pages) and start interspersing (interleaving, in book restoration talk) paper towels about every 20 pages, working from the front to the middle of the book. Once you get to the middle, flip the book over, and repeat the process from the back to the middle.
  • Leave the book flat for about an hour so the paper towels can absorb some of the water. (If your book got that wet, chances are good some of your other stuff got wet. Go check on them.)
  • Hour is up? Stand the book up, fanned, on the “head” or “tail” as described in the “damp” section, above.
  • Switch out the surface covering and paper towels as they soak up the water, and periodically repeat the process until the book is “only” damp.
  • Now follow the directions for damp books, above.

It’s hard to envision some of these steps, so I was delighted to find this video from Syracuse University, where I attended graduate school many, many years ago. Their Department of Preservation and Conservation illustrates how to save damp and wet books from becoming wrinkly, moldy goop.

(For more information, you may also want to peruse theDisaster Recovery Manual for the Syracuse University Libraries.)

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If your book is soaked through, meaning it fell into a pool or your house flooded to the point that your book was submerged, this is really a job for professionals. The instructions below describe what they’ll do, not what you should do. Unless you are a restoration specialist, you are likely to be out of your depth. That said, there are two possible measures:

1) Air-Dry (For those of us for whom humidity makes us resemble Art Garfunkel, “air-dry” already has some unfortunate connotations!)

This is basically an advanced version of the solution for “wet” books above, with a few changes:

  • DON’T OPEN THE BOOK (to the interior). Don’t fan the pages.
  • Put paper towels between the front and rear covers and the interior of the book.
  • Use those fans! Turn on the A/C. Get out the dehumidifier. And be patient.

2) Freeze!

WAIT! Stop pulling the Eggos and last night’s leftovers out of the freezer to make room. Freezing books keeps mold and mildew from growing and gives professional restorers some extra time to plot out their attack.
Paper Doll To the Rescue: How To Save Wet Books & Documents | Best Results Organizing (5)But to save soaked books, restorers use rapid freezing methods at temperatures down to -20°F (-28.9°C) so ice crystals won’t form on the books. Unless you’ve got a seriously fancy-pants freezer, your Frididaire probably isn’t going to cut it.

Once the wet books get frozen, restorers use vacuum freeze-dryingto remove moisture, similar to how food is freeze-dried.

The water in the damaged book goes from being a solid (picture microscopic ice cubes) to a gas (think: water vapor) without ever turning into liquid.

This is called sublimation. (Is this starting to remind you of high school chemistry class? Or maybe you soaked your high school chemistry textbook and never read anything the rest of the semester?)

By skipping the liquid stage, there’s less of a chance of the paper cockling, the cover (boards) warping, or the ink running. This is good. But again, this is really the work of a professional.

That said, a number of resources, includingWikiHow, advise that you can repair a wet book by freezing it in a regular household freezer. (Scroll down on the linked page to see their Method #2.) They advise removing excess water by interleaving small sets of pages with white paper towels, as described above, and then putting the damaged book into a zipper-lock plastic bag, and sealing it. (They warn, “Do not perform a vacuum seal, however; you want some air to be able to reach the book’s pages, and some space to be between the texture of the bag and the book itself.” OK, then!)

WikiHow says to keep the book in the freezer 1-2 weeks, depending on how long the book is. (So, go the full fortnight if it’s all 963 pages of Anna Karenina, which, coincidentally, Paper Doll just finished reading. I wish I could have frozen the chapters on wheat threshing, let me tell you!)


Then, when you pull the book out, you’ll go back to the methods for “damp” and “wet” books above, because you, my friends, do not have a vacuum freeze-drying machine for books. You got a lot of the water out, but as the book defrosts, there will still be moisture!

Anna Gooding-Call of Book Riot notes that the ice crystal problem (obviated by the fancy vacuum freeze-drying used by professionals) is a bigger deal. She notes, “To a certain extent, you might not be able to avoid this because you are a normal human being and you have a normal human being’s freezer. Ice can wreck your book for the same reason as it can wreck your fleshy body: freezing water expands and ruptures things. Set your freezer to its lowest setting—as in, the warmest temperature relative to how freezy it can possibly get—and check frequently. If you have a no-frost function, use it!”

The Houston Chronicle has similar advice about freezing, but notes that if there are any coated pages in a doused book, such as in a section of illustrations or photos, take extra precautions. Because coated pages may fuse together if not separated, their article advises putting a sheet of wax paper between every coated page to isolate each one.

Interleaving, fanning, freezing. This is a lot of work!

For what it’s worth, WikiHow also has instructions for rescuing your damp books using a hair dryer. After removing excess water, they recommend laying the book down on an absorbent towel and aiming the dryer at the pages, top-to-bottom, a few at a time, and not moving onward until the pages you’ve worked on are dry.

I once tried this dryer method, but it still yielded a LOT of cockling, and in the end, I had to reimburse the public library for a new copy anyway. Reader, beware.

Beyond that, my undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University, specifically says NOT to use heat to dry books! Cornell’s exact (final) words on the subject are:

Do not use artificial heat to try to speed the drying, as this will lead to dimensional distortion.

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“Dimensional distortion” sounds like something that’s better handled in Doctor Who than the Paper Doll blog, so we’ll just leave that right there.


Let’s say you haven’t soaked a book, but perhaps you were working on your family filing and a tiny human or furry friend got over-excited and upturned your glass of water. Most of the solutions for books will work just as well for individual papers.

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The Library of Congress has a page of advice for emergency preservation of museum collections of paper, and this guidance is easily applied to your important documents at home:

  • Create your safe workspace (away from the tiny humans, furry friends and, your beverages).
  • Lay your wet papers flat on clean absorbent towels or unprinted (newsprint) paper. Periodically change the towels as they absorb water, and until your documents are merely damp.
  • DON’T try to separate soaking wet sheets of paper. Wet paper is heavy and sticks together; if you try to separate the pages, they are likely to tear. Instead, just leave them in quarter-inch high stacks until most of the water has been absorbed by the towels or has evaporated.
  • Once the pages are only damp, you can try gently prying them apart. Then interleave clean, whitepaper towels between the documents.
  • Lightly weigh the documents down to flatten them and discourage cockling.
  • Keep the air flowing in the room, but do not blow fans directly onto your papers. Not only would they cockle or ruffle, but they might blow away into the hands of those tiny humans or paws of the furry friends, and then you’ll have bigger problems than soaked papers.

The Library of Congress also advises against air-drying coated (glossy) paper. Instead, freeze the documents immediately using the same (home-based) methods as described for books.


This post should cover your casual book and document restoration needs. If you represent an association, government agency, museum, or other “collection” and need guidance with regard to restoration and conservatorship, try these resources:

American Institute of Conservation (AIC) and Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC)(including their downloadable documents on caring for books, photographs, and paper)

Canadian Association of Professional Conservators’ Find a Conservator

Canadian Conservation Institute(offers a free emergency telephone line for damage to paper collections)

Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts: Technical Bulletin for Disaster Recovery | Salvaging Books

Northeast Document Conservation Centre (NEDCC)

The National Archives of the United Kingdom, “How To Deal With Wet Documents”

Stay safe! Stay dry! And keep your phone out of the Rice-a-Roni!


How do you save a completely wet book? ›

Wrap wet books in wax paper, freezer paper, paper towels, or unprinted newspaper to keep covers from sticking together. It is not necessary to cover more than the covers and spine with the wrapping. Place in freezer. Remove in small batches as time permits and follow guidelines for drying.

How do you dry a wet book without wrinkles? ›

Microwave the paper for about 15 seconds to evaporate some of the water. Afterwards, press the paper flat with a heavy item to get rid of wrinkles. If you have a book or binder full of wet paper, place a paper towel between every ten or so pages to absorb water. Then, place the papers in front of a gentle fan.

How do you flatten wet book pages? ›

After you have removed as much water as possible from the book, prop it up carefully and use a large fan set on low to air-dry the pages. Let it in position overnight and it will be dry by the morning. Next, it is time to flatten the pages. Put the book between two boards and put heavy objects on top to press it flat.

Can you put a wet book in the oven? ›

DO NOT PUT A BOOK IN AN OVEN OR MICROWAVE TO DRY. Heat will over-dry and warp the book and can melt the adhesives used in the binding. Microwaves cook the book rather than dry it and can also melt adhesives or singe paper. When salvaging a number of books, you should first sort them into different types: A.

How do you dry wet books quickly? ›

Stand the book on its tail and fan open the pages. If possible dry the book in this position in the sunlight or with the use of a fan. Alternatively, dry the book in a warm dry area away from a direct heat source. The more quickly the book dries the less cockling (rippling) will occur.

How do you separate water damaged book pages? ›

Gently apply pressure using a clean, white towel.

Blot each page gently, using a clean white cloth, or a white paper towel. Moving the cloth side-to-side can tear wet pages. Blot each page gently and carefully before moving on to the next. If the pages are only slightly damp, you can place the rag between each page.

Can you fix water damaged books? ›

Most water-damaged materials from minor/moderate emergencies can be recovered in-house through air-drying. Depending on the degree to which the materials have been saturated, the drying process may last as long as a week or be completed in one day.

Why you should always put a used book in the freezer before reading it? ›

Put the book in the freezer

If insects have found their way into the pages of a book, you can also use the freezing method to get rid of them. “When you're dealing with insects, then the cold is all that's necessary to kill them,” says Tetro.

Can you fix water damaged paper? ›

Spread the document out on a flat surface protected by paper towels. Replace the paper towels when they become saturated. Sprinkle corn starch or talcum powder between pages to absorb the moisture. Leave the powder on for several hours and then brush it off.

How do you stop book pages from warping? ›

You should ensure that you store books in places with low humidity levels, as excessive moisture can warp pages and even encourage mold growth. Both temperatures and humidity levels should remain consistent.

Can you iron wrinkled book pages? ›

Library specialists advise that you shouldn't iron the pages, because you can easily scorch them. And you don't want to do that. Their suggestion was to smooth the pages as best as possible and place several heavy items on top.

Can you save moldy books? ›

The best thing to do is to either freeze the volumes first if they are not too large and then rub them down again with alcohol or to simply remove the mold with alcohol. I recommend freezing them first to make removing it easier.

How long does it take for a wet book to dry? ›

But you will need to have patience for the book to become completely dry as it may take up to a week or two to completely remove the moisture. Place under weight to flatten after dry. After sitting open for a week or two, the book will probably feel stiff and will not lie completely flat.

What happens when paper gets wet? ›

As most paper is made from trees, a typical piece of paper is composed mostly of cellulose wood fibers. These fibers are reinforced and fused by strong hydrogen bonds. When paper gets wet, however, those bonds are damaged and the fibers separate more easily. In turn, the paper becomes weak and tears.

How do you keep old books in good condition? ›

Preserving Books
  1. Storage — Store books away from sources of heat and moisture. ...
  2. Shelving — Store small- to medium-sized books upright (vertically). ...
  3. Handling — Handle books gently to avoid separating covers and spine pieces from the binding. ...
  4. Making Copies — Do not place books face down on a photocopier or scanner.
May 7, 2020

Why do we cover our books with plastic sheets? ›

Parents and students usually cover books with plastic sheets to protect them from wear and tear, water and stains.

Should you put a wet book in the freezer? ›

Stick it in the freezer!

This is the best thing you can do in a drenched literature emergency. Even the Library of Congress recommends it! A wet book starts to mold almost immediately.

Can wet paper go back to normal? ›

It really depends on the conditions. Paper will dry a lot faster (e.g., within minutes to hours) in a cool, dry environment, or if you help it along with a fan or blow dryer. If the environment is too humid, it will take much longer for the paper to dry, and mold could develop.

Does paper deteriorate in water? ›

Paper may simply disintegrate, or its contents may be removed when added to water. Fragile materials often need to be mounted on mesh for the alkaline wash. However, despite the risks, this method is the mainstay of the conservation of paper that is degrading due to acid.

How do you dry out a wet notebook? ›

If a book is thoroughly wet, don't try to open it. Just keep the covers closed and balance the book on its top edge so that all the water can drain down. Put it on sheets of absorbent paper (paper towels, for instance) and turn on a fan nearby.

Is a dehumidifier good for books? ›

The best way to ensure that your books are stored in a cool, relatively dry, clean, and stable environment, we strongly suggest using a dehumidifier.

What causes wavy book pages? ›

Most case-bound books are properly constructed with the paper grain of the book-block parallel to the spine. Therefore, any dimensional change in the paper caused by excessive post-bind moisture absorption and retention will result in a wavy appearance parallel to the spine.

Should you throw away moldy books? ›

Moldy pages can NOT be recycled and should be removed from the book and disposed of in the trash. Once you have confirmed there is no mold, or you have removed the moldy pages, feel free to treat your old paperback like any other paper.

How do you remove mold from documents? ›

Remove microbes and mold.

Wiping off mold and debris with a dry soft cloth. Placing a thin cloth over the end of a vacuum hose attachment and then vacuuming the document. Wiping or spot-cleaning a paper document or book with a soft cloth that you slightly dampened with denatured alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.

How do you store books in a damp basement? ›

Books and documents: Poor ventilation and humidity can wreak havoc on anything with a paper component. Unless your space is finished and not subject to big climate variations, store books above ground and in sturdy, leak-proof containers.

How long does it take for wet paper to mold? ›

In high temperatures, mold can begin to grow on wet paper in less than 48 hours.

Does oven remove moisture? ›

Water from the object escapes into the air, raising the humidity level and causing the semi-solid membranes inside the oven to absorb the water. The end result is that the oven removes water from the object being dried, leaving it dehydrated.

Can you put paper in the oven to dry? ›

Bake 5 minutes at 225 degrees and then flip over, baking another 3-4 minutes on the other side until paper is dry and crisp. If paper is not to your desired darkness, re-dip and re-dry for an even darker shade.

How do you dry out water in an oven? ›

To burn off excess moisture, set oven to Convection mode on the lowest temp (85°F), and run with the door ajar to evaporate residual moisture on the floor. If there is too much condensation on or around food, try a higher cooking temperature and lengthen operating time.

What happens if I spill water in my oven? ›

Remove as much water as you can, let the stove dry out fully, then you can turn the safety switch and/or circuit breaker back ON and all should be OK.


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