Welcome, weary ones! You of sopping sneakers, you of deluged domains, you who did not get flood insurance for your book collection, welcome. It is my sincerest hope that you have googled this question in a blind panic after having gotten a book super, super wet. I’m about to tell you exactly how to save a wet book before it dries out into crunchy, brittle, moldy waves.
1. Shake it off, shake it off!
Get the book as dry as you can! Stat! Put something absorbent between the pages and cover and squeeze. Shake it gently to get water out of it. Towel off the covers. Be gentle, thorough, and quick. If there’s glossy paper and photographic material in the book, put wax paper between them right away, before you do anything else.
2. 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. There is nothing—not ice cream, not puppies, not sweet innocent true love on the warm sands of Cape Verde—that mold likes better than a wet book. Conversely, there is nothing that mold hates more than a deep freeze. Freezing your book will halt mold growth before it gets to second base. Try to make sure that the pages aren’t going to freeze together.
This won’t necessarily stop your book from deforming, but it might help it deform less because it stalls the soaking-in-progress. That’s a technical term, by the way. I had a whole class in librarian school about the soaking-in-progress.
Additionally, beware of ice buildup. 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! Also, consider putting the book in a sealed plastic bag for its protection.
3. Absorb the damage!
As your book unfreezes, the water will start to seep out of it. Be ready! You don’t want it to seep back into your precious paper friend. Put paper towels between the pages to absorb the water as the book thaws. Then, stand it up on a towel or paper towels. It doesn’t matter what absorbent material stand that book up on, as long as you change it as soon as it gets too wet. Watch the whole setup like a hawk and be proactive about changing those towels.
You can also sprinkle some cornstarch between pages that remain stubbornly wet. That will help absorb a lot of the water, and you can just shake or brush it out later.
Ultimately, despite all your love and care, it’s the power of physics that will save your book from the watery depths. Water wants to be a gas, even when it’s frozen, and if you give it half a chance it’ll ditch the tangible world and head out to the great atmosphere in the sky. This may seem like callous abandonment, but don’t be hurt. As much as we hate it, we want water to be free.
Set up a fan and have it blow air gently at your water-damaged book, but not directly on it. Air should circulate but pages should not be riffling. Leave it like this until the book is almost dry, constantly switching out the paper towels as detailed above. If this sounds like a good time to catch up on some audiobooks, then your ears are working perfectly.
5. Flatten it!
Time to bring that book back to its original shape! At this point, the book should be only damp. Put fresh paper towels between the pages and switch out whatever absorbent surface you’ve had the book standing on. You want the book on a hard surface for this next part. Put a paper towel down if you feel that the book may still need it. Why would it need more towels, you ask? Why, I answer, it’s simple: we’re going to smush it.
If the book’s really in terrible shape—deformed, rolled, wavy, etc.—gently pull it back into an approximation of the shape you want. Remember, it should still be somewhat damp at this stage. If it’s bone-dry, then congratulations, because you now own a permanently deformed book. Maybe you like that. I don’t know, I’m not you. Don’t re-wet it, because you could just make the problem worse.
Then, lay your paper buddy down on the surface. Get a bunch of other books (ones that are not wet) to pile on top of it. You want a LOT of weight on top of your messed-up tome because you want it to end up nice and flat. Keep the fan on so that the book keeps drying.
6. Bask in victory!
You did it! You saved the book! Or maybe you didn’t. Results may vary, honestly, and not every wet book is salvageable. This is especially true if the liquid that has marred its pristine pages is not clean, is not water, or does not freeze nicely. Anyway, you did your best! Up in book heaven, your martyred text appreciates all of your efforts. For now, it’s time to move on.
Now that you’re ready for it, why not check out a little bit more about book preservation?