Waterlogged books in the freezer?

April 7, 2010 at 7:56 PM 7 comments

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.

Four books standing up with their spines toward the camera. The books are James Stewart's BLOOD SPORT, Paul and Sarah Edwards's MIDDLE-CLASS LIFEBOAT, JoAllen Bradham's SOME PERSONAL PAPERS, and Michelle Kennedy's STAYING DRY.

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!

A photograph of eight books in four stacks soaking in a bathtub, each stack weighed down with heavy crystal vases and decanters.

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.

A photograph of the top left corner of a book (with the title, BLOOD SPORT, visible) in a plastic bag that has been stapled shut.

So then I put the books in the freezer and left them there for two weeks.

Four books in plastic bags separated by paper towel in a freezer. Also visible in the freezer are food items in different containers.

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.

An overhead shot of four books standing up in a bathtub, waterlogged and bloated with wavy pages.

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.

A close shot of the top of a book with discolored spots of mold on the pages

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.

A photograph of a book with just the front cover opened. Ice coats the endpapers.

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.

A photograph of a book standing upright, pages toward the camera. There are large sheets of ice on the pages and the book is bloated with moisture.

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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Links: girls on book covers, a Twilight novella, and the Lambda Literary Awards News: property tax caps and Indiana libraries, microfilm art, and YALSA mentoring

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian Porter  |  April 7, 2010 at 11:50 PM

    Thanks for doing this. I saw you linked to that article a while ago, and I wondered if it was really a feasible option. Thanks for doing the leg work.

  • 2. Ian Porter  |  April 7, 2010 at 11:53 PM

    Also, when you get a chance, try to get a “Share this” widget for your posts. I could repost this on FB for my library school friends to check out.

    • 3. Gretchen  |  April 8, 2010 at 10:30 PM

      Thanks for the idea. Sharing buttons for del.icio.us, Facebook, and Twitter are now available for this post (and most posts from here on out).

  • 4. Erin  |  April 8, 2010 at 12:46 PM

    fascinating experiment. let me know if you need help with any future ones!

    • 5. Gretchen  |  April 8, 2010 at 10:30 PM

      If you can think of something you want to test, I’m game. :)

  • 6. Cary  |  April 8, 2010 at 9:02 PM

    Nice job Gretchen! You can be a librarian and a scientist at the same time! P.S. How is that chili?!!!

    • 7. Gretchen  |  April 8, 2010 at 10:31 PM

      Well, my degree will be in library science!

      (But no, seriously, this experiment was fun. I’d like to do more things like this.)

      And the chili is great. It’s just waiting for me to buy more shredded cheese…


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