How to save a wet book.

A friend of mine who works in a diocesan chancery sent me a copy of a reference guide about how to keep and care for parish sacramental records.  Very cool.  Very informative.  The 1983 Code of Canon Law requires that all parishes keep sacramental records, or registers, in actual books which must be cared for.  All sorts of sacramental information is to be stored by hand in these books as a permanent record.  Scripta manent.

Care for the books might deal with situations in which damage occurs.  Say, for example, there is a fire or a flood and the parish registers are damaged by water. How do you rescue the books and the precious information within?  Ink can run when wet, paper can fall apart or mold.

Here is a tip I learned from this guide, which was prepared with the help of professional archvists.

Water damage is the most likely severe damage a register could suffer.

If the book is only damp or partially wet, stand the book upright on its bottom or top edge (with wettest edge down), with the covers open at a 90 degree angle. If the book won’t stand up, lay it open flat, and use clean, all white paper towels to absorb as much water as possible by blotting. Do not scrub the pages or covers to get out more water.

This may smear the ink. Air dry in a room with low humidity and good air circulation.

Do not have a fan blowing directly on the register.

If the book is very wet: close it, wrap the book in wax paper and place it spine down (making sure the covers are supported) in a freezer. A sub-zero commercial freezer is best, but a home freezer works too. The book must be placed in the freezer within 48 hours of getting wet.

Freezing stabilizes the book: mold growth will be stopped, ink will not run, and dye transfer and swelling will be reduced.

Very interesting and useful!

There are sites of libraries which deal with this too.  However, it is important that people who work for the Church understand these things.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Joe in Canada says:

    The library of the Société des Bollandistes, editors of the Acta Sanctorum, had just a few small bottles of water at the end of the aisles. I asked why they didn’t have more and the answer was “water does more damage to books than fire.” Of course they meant it in the case that a fire doesn’t absolutely destroy a book. They were more concerned about a zealous librarian throwing water on books when it wasn’t absolutely needed. This being in Belgium, if a fire really broke out, it would probably rain before the fire department could get there.

  2. frjim4321 says:

    Very good idea.

    Wonder how many places take care to use permanent ink in the registers.

    With all the gel pens, etc., around these days I suspect much would be lost if our registers became wet.

    Also, our bishops here always check the index when signing off on their annual visit. It’s amazing how often the most recent entry is not in the index!

  3. mibethda says:

    Interesting indeed, but what follows after a book has been placed in a freezer? Is there another step, or is the water drawn out of the paper by the freezing process itself?

  4. Charles E Flynn says:

    People who are serious about having archival ink choose the Pigma Micron pen, by Sakura of America.

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    Freezing dehydrates things, the ice gradually sublimates away. I have a couple of whole pheasants that have been in the freezer for a year or so (we use them for retriever training) and they only weigh a few ounces.
    It seems to me that a very good plan would be to microfilm the registers on a periodic basis and store the films somewhere offsite. I used to do a lot of genealogical research, and just about every vital records office and courthouse in the country uses microfilm for backup. Some of the courts are now going to electronic filing and storage, but microfilm is still the standard.
    That way, in a worst case scenario such as a fire or seriously destructive flood (we had one of those here September two years ago — fortunately we are on relatively high ground, but many folks in our neighborhood had their houses and contents washed away downstream somewhere, never to be seen again), the registers can be reconstructed.

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    People who manage buildings should know in advance what they plan to do if a water disaster strikes, and should be familiar with the recent advances in rapid drying, called convectant drying, originally developed for removing moisture in the manufacture of dog biscuits:

    Water Out.

  7. Banjo pickin girl says:

    I recall many years ago flooding in Venice soaked some books which were frozen and then freeze-dried. They said it worked well.

  8. Random Friar says:

    I’ve noted a couple of dioceses that I’m familiar with have asked that parishes send copies of their sacramental records to the chancery every year. It seems like a great idea to me. Always have a backup!

  9. jkm210 says:

    I’m a librarian at a university library. A few years ago we had a pipe burst and they asked everyone to take a few books home to put in the freezer. I can’t see the point of microfilming records, though. Most people now don’t even know how to use microfilm machines, and the newer models are really “digitizers,” allowing you to save images of the film on the computer.

    I understand that there is a rule mandating a book format, but a digital backup seems the best plan, especially in our modern climate of parish closings and mergers. Dioceses should just have a big database of all of that information that they can verify when people need it.

  10. Charles E Flynn says:

    Here is a wonderful article about a major advance in archival data storage, inspired by a scientist’s investigation of petroglyphs:

    mDisc Review: A Thousand Years of Storage, by Gina Smith, BYTE.

  11. Tim Ferguson says:

    I work in a Tribunal and, a year before I started there, the office flooded (pipe burst on the floor above us on a Friday night and wasn’t discovered until Sunday morning). Fortunately, our library, which contains many old and valuable tomes, was not harmed, but several hundred case files were. The staff, following protocol, put everything that was wet in a freezer and contacted the archives, which contacted a disaster recovery firm for us. Because of that quick action, 95% of the cases were able to be recovered. I remember my first year, working with the “freeze dried” cases.

    jmk210, the advantage of books is that the technology doesn’t change. The same goes with microfilming – not everybody knows how to use the machines, but, push comes to shove, you can take a flashlight and project it up on a wall. The difficulty with digital backup, especially for something as permanent as sacramental registers, is the mutability of the technology – ask anyone in an office with years of past records stored on floppy disks. I think it’s more likely that someone will have the ability to review microfilm in a hundred years than will be able to open a Microsoft Word file created in 2011.

  12. AnAmericanMother says:

    You’re blessed to have the resources of a university library, but most of us don’t have that sort of support! It will be many, many years before digital storage (even microfilm digital) gets down to the small county government level, let alone to your average shoestring budget parish.
    And I agree with Tim F that computer backup is not as transparent or as immutable as paper or film. Both the latter have the advantage of long-term legibility – for my thesis I had to look over volumes and volumes of county records as far back as the early 1800s. The paper itself was sometimes a bit fragile, but the “clerkly hand” was still quite legible. Microfilm adds an additional layer of potential carelessness (out of focus, incomplete and missing pages) but it’s still better than a magnetic record as it can be read directly. I just tossed out a box of 5 1/4″ discs — we have nothing that can read them. The data wasn’t that important and was pretty old, but in times past the papers would have been combed through and the important ones sent to storage — and might have provided some researcher in 2079 with valuable information . . . .

  13. ellynvh says:

    The Arch. of Chicago specifies a certain type of indelible pen…which is great because looking back at records done before this was mandated shows how ghastly and impermanent the average ball point pen can be. And NO WHITE OUT. Ever… (don’t get me started on the records where white out is used. )

  14. John Cortens says:

    Ach! I remember when it was all codex this, codex that–gotta have all on codices! And I said *&%$! What am I gonna do with all these scrolls?! Course now they’re just sittin in the basement with all my 78’s and my CDs.

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