Restoring Smoke Damaged Books Part 1

Virtually all homes and businesses have books. Either one wall in a living room or den is devoted to bookcases, or an entire library may be constructed for this purpose. At a minimum, books are used as decorative accessories throughout a home or business.

Regardless of their use, insureds have many dollars and much sentiment tied up in their books. Restoration specialists have the responsibility of providing answers to questions about restoring smoke-damaged books.

Processing Options
As with most other items and surfaces within a structure, cleaning books is the most reasonable and practical option to undertake in terms of restoration. As damage increases, there are only two other restoration options available. If cleaning is unsuccessful, the next option is rebinding. In rebinding books, specialized companies trim (literally slice off) smoke-stained page edges, followed by replacement of covers with ones comparable to those that can’t be restored.

The rebinding process is usually fairly expensive, ranging from 25 percent to 60 percent of the replacement cost. The third option replacement is far more expensive than one would expect, if a comparable replacement book can be found. Often times, however, it cannot.

Inspection Considerations
Before undertaking restoration you must carefully evaluate the condition of damaged books.

Construction Components
Covers and bindings are made of sturdy cardboard, and are often covered with cloth to add strength. The cloth-covered cardboard is coated with a paste-and-resin compound that stiffens, adds color and protects books from the effects of soil and aging. Titles are printed in a variety of inks and decorative trim, and gilding may be added as well. Groups of pages are often sewn together with cotton thread, and adhesives are used to further stabilize bindings.

Books are constructed of paper on which durable inks are applied. Book paper comes in a variety of types and qualities. A “good paper” is one that contains little acid and is high in cotton fiber content, in addition to cellulose from wood pulp. The acid content of paper used in printing between the late 1800s and the first half of the twentieth century was high in acid content. Therefore, older books may be brittle or disintegrating even before the disaster occurred.

In all book processing, maintain humidity in work and storage areas at 35 percent to 50 percent relative humidity. Otherwise, distortion of cellulose components, and eventually the growth of fungi (mold), is almost assured.

Smoke Damage
Smoke damage, or staining, is usually found in two areas of books: the tops of pages and the outer binding (facing both the room and the air currents generated by the fire). Unless lying out on tables, books seldom experience damage to fronts or backs, or to outer (opening) or bottom page edges. When packed together on bookshelves, they literally protect each other from deposits of soot residue.

Moisture Damage
Since books are made of paper, they are extremely moisture sensitive. Avoid warping the pages and covers at all costs. When moisture exposure occurs, warping as well as dye transfer may occur.

Restoring water-damaged books (and documents in commercial situations) in quantity is a highly specialized service that is undertaken by firms with vacuum freeze-drying equipment. Specialists take advantage of a drying process called “sublimation,” whereby frozen water converts directly into vapor. When you encounter this situation on a claim, coordinate with management to contact and work with a specialized document processor.

Packing and Transport
In light-to-moderate fire losses, most books can be cleaned immediately as they are removed from shelves. Simply blow them off, wipe them with a dry cleaning sponge, and return them to the clean shelving. In heavy-soot damage situations, they must be removed and processed in-plant.

There are several considerations that restorers must make when removing heavily smoke-damaged books from a structure for processing in their facility.

Initially, no matter how heavy the smoke damage, handle books delicately. Before packing, wipe them down with a dry cleaning sponge to remove as much of the loose residue as possible. Even then, be careful to handle them by their covers only. Never contact page edges during handling and loading. This prevents some of the “fingerprint” staining that otherwise might occur.

Books are heavy! Pack them in small, sturdy boxes for transport to your facility for cleaning. Reinforce the bottoms of boxes with careful taping. To prevent back strain, always plan to use a dolly for moving heavy boxes of books around during the boxing and loading process.

When packing books for shipment to a specialized subcontractor, your ability to protect and pack them carefully is of primary importance. Shipping companies often have weight limits on boxes being shipped, so coordinate in advance to save having to repack an entire shipment.

Again, books are heavy! Make sure the vehicle you are using has the weight capacity to transport a quantity of books safely. A standard light-duty, half-ton cargo van may require two trips or more.

Well OK. So now you’re prepared to begin processing books. We’ll save that discussion for the next issue.

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