Disaster management for records

It’s important your agency's business continuity plan details how you will manage and protect your records during a disaster.

When planning for a disaster follow these key steps:

  • Undertake a risk assessment – you can use the sample risk assessment framework (PDF, 37 KB)
  • Identify and prioritise your physical and digital records – know your high-value, high-risk and vital records and store them in a safe place
  • Have one or more backups of systems and records, stored away from risk areas
  • Develop a salvage priority list to help you prioritise your records and what actions you will take to resolve the damage
  • Increase staff awareness and skills
  • Test your plan periodically, and document and review incidents or near misses.

When it is safe to do so, air dry what records you can within the first 48 hours.

Prioritise water-affected, high-value, high-risk and vital records that are not backed up at a safe, unaffected location.

If wet and damp material cannot be dried within the first 48 hours, you will need to arrange to freeze most paper-based items.

Most threats to your records can be resolved in some way. The most common threats to records include:

  • water: from total saturation through to slight dampness or humidity
  • contamination: dirt, smoke, biological including sewerage, chemical
  • physical or structural failure: tears, fragmentation, disintegration, distortion, collapsed hanging systems
  • heat: charring, distortion, desiccation.

It’s important to store records with the same type of damage together such as wet vs dry, dirty vs clean.

Soiled, burnt and fragmented records are less likely to suffer more damage from time.

Ensure you follow any required workplace health and safety procedures, including using personal protective equipment.

Focus on the record itself. Damaged file covers, bindings, boxes and containers can be removed and replaced. Check inside boxes and housings–records themselves may not be as damaged as their containers.

Make sure you don't lose control information such as metadata and listings when discarding boxes or separating parts.

Use the following table to triage damaged records and for the best salvage method to use.

Salvage methods for paper, books and parchment

MethodTo be used
Air dry (within 48 hours)Yes
Keep wet (up to 48 hours)


Salvage methods for plans

MethodTo be used on paper and cloth plansTo be used on film-based plan
Air dry (within 48 hours)YesYes
Keep wet (up to 48 hours)NoYes

Salvage methods for computer memory

MethodTo be used on computer tapes and floppy disksTo be used on flash and external hard drives
Air dry (within 48 hours)YesNo
Keep wet (up to 48 hours)YesNo
Specialist salvage onlyYesYes

Salvage methods for media

MethodTo be used on optical mediaTo be used on magnetic media
Air dry (within 48 hours)YesYes
Keep wet (up to 48 hours)NoNo

Salvage methods for photographic material

MethodTo be used on photographic printsTo be used on photographic negatives
Air dry (within 48 hours)YesYes
Keep wet (up to 48 hours)YesYes

Salvage methods for transparencies

MethodTo be used
Air dry (within 48 hours)Yes
Keep wet (up to 48 hours)Yes

Salvage methods for motion picture films

MethodTo be used
Air dry (within 48 hours)No
Keep wet (up to 48 hours)Yes
Specialist salvage onlyYes

Salvage methods for microforms

MethodTo be used
Air dry (within 48 hours)Yes
Keep wet (up to 48 hours)Yes

Water-damaged records (small quantity)

Wet records will swell and can become heavy.

Wet paper and volumes (and boxes) can easily tear and distort under their own weight and when handled.

Soluble inks and dyes will run.

Glossy paper, photographic prints and film are likely to stick together and to other surfaces, and emulsion will start to lift and peel. This material will 'block' (i.e. dry together as a block, or single mass) if allowed to dry before items can be separated.

Cleaning wet records

Lightly-soiled records will need to be cleaned before they can be dried. Hold the record firmly closed under a gentle stream of cold, clean water then gently dab with a sponge or very soft brush if necessary.

Do not rub, scrub or attempt to open pages or separate items at this stage or use hot water, detergents and bleaches.

Do not attempt this on oversized documents or maps/plans.

Air-dry records in-house

Find a secure, clean, dry, open and well ventilated work space and equip it with:

  • plenty of tables, benches or other hard surfaces–you can lay plastic sheeting to stop timber absorbing run-off water and delaying the drying process
  • fans–if you have power, using fans will speed up the drying time and help prevent mould growth from stagnant air and humidity build-up
  • paper towels and/or other absorbents (e.g. blotting paper, sponges)
  • clothes line or cord where you can hang records
  • stationery to record all control information (e.g. file locations, notes, names)
  • personal protective equipment (e.g. gloves, P1/P2 masks, clothing, eye and footwear protection)
  • access to clean water if possible.

Keep items that have been dried and need re-shelving separate from undamaged and/or untreated records.

Individual files

Handle carefully and as minimally as possible.

Gently remove files from boxes or containers (noting any control information) and lay them flat.

Interleave with absorbent paper towels–make sure they are longer than the records to wick the water away.

Take care not to put too much strain on the point where the file is bound or fastened.

Illustration of paper that has been fanned out

Illustration of paper that has been fanned out courtesy of National Archives of Australia (used with permission)

Fan the files out for greater exposure, if space permits.

Replace saturated interleaving sheets with dry sheets regularly. Discard the wet ones (don't re-use them).

String some lines and hang folder-enclosed records from the middle, if space is limited.

Illustration of file hanging on a line

Illustration of file hanging on a line courtesy of National Archives of Australia (used with permission)

Lay sodden records flat to partially dry until they are strong enough to hang.

Bound volumes or books

If bound volumes are strong and rigid enough, and not saturated, dry them upright and fan with the covers open slightly.

Ilustration of book standing with pages spread

Illustration of book standing with pages spread courtesy of National Archives of Australia (used with permission)

If pages are waterlogged or not rigid enough, lie them flat and interleave with blotting paper or paper towels.

To avoid damaging the book's spine, the amount of interleaving should not exceed 1/4 of the spine's thickness.

Interleaving should be changed often and wet sheets disposed of.

When almost completely dry, replace the interleaving sheets then lay the volume horizontally and lightly weight it to assist final drying and minimize distortion–use a board to distribute the weight evenly with a covered brick or other heavy object placed on top.

Illustration of book with absorbent paper between pages

Illustration of book with absorbent paper between pages courtesy of National Archives of Australia (used with permission)

Water-damaged records (large quantity)

If you have a large quantity of damp/wet records, and aren't able to clean and dry them within 48 hours, freezing is a good option. It will give you time to:

  • stop or slow any mould growth
  • determine if temporary records can be legally destroyed
  • decide if you will attempt to dry the records yourself or use a commercial salvage company.

Freeze packing procedures

To freeze your records, you will need to first gather:

  • crates and/or pallets for easy transport into freezer storage, if possible
  • plastic bags or freezer paper
  • waterproof marking pens.

Do not freeze glass plate negatives, magnetic tapes (e.g. audio, video, computer), floppy discs, electronic media (e.g. CDs, DVDs), microfilm and microfiche, or photograph albums.

When using this method:

  • where possible, freeze wet records in original containers (e.g. boxes, drawers, plan cabinets) to minimize handling
  • if records cannot be frozen in their original containers, separate loose records from each other–wrap them in plastic bags or freezer paper to prevent the records from sticking to the material beside it
  • place all items vertically into plastic crates–if they are bound you should place them with the spine down

Illustration of books in plastic crates

Illustration of books in plastic crates

Illustrations of books in plastic crates courtesy of National Archives of Australia (used with permission)
  • use waterproof or freezer pens to ensure that each crate is numbered and a list of its contents is attached
  • pack like with like–don't mix wet/sodden and just damp records together (damp records will absorb the excess water).

Drying frozen records

If you are drying frozen records in house:

  • only remove small quantities from freezing at a time
  • allow records to thaw in a cool, dry area
  • wash or remove any mud or soil while the records are defrosting, but still damp.

Note: If you are engaging a commercial provider to salvage your records, you might need to clarify whether they have specific requirements you'll need to meet when freezing records.

Heavily soiled and water-damaged records

If you have items that are heavily soiled (e.g. after a flood), you need to determine what the records are soiled with (sewerage, mud, other contaminants).

If the records are contaminated with sewerage, you must leave them in-situ and contact your Workplace Health and Safety Coordinator. Recovery of this material will require the services of a professional.

If the records are still intact and legible, you should attempt to wash the mud from them (as above) and either:

  • air dry in-house
  • freeze the records


  • seek specialist assistance.

If the records are too damaged, or if washing and salvage is not possible, you'll need to photograph them and seek advice on the disposal of damaged records.

What to do once records have dried

You'll need to monitor recently dried records in their temporary storage area for signs of continuing damp or mould.

Only reinstate the dried records when you are sure that both they and the permanent storage area have been completely cleaned and dried, and are mould-free.

Soiled and dry records

As with soiled and wet records:

  • confirm what the contaminant is to determine health and safety risks and the most appropriate cleaning method
  • limit handling to the minimum–seek assistance from either a specialist commercial salvage company or QSA Preservation Services.

If the record is robust enough for handling and the contaminant is not a health and safety risk you may be able to clean off loose general surface dirt it by brushing, wiping with an electrostatic cloth, or using a gentle vacuum (fitted with a HEPA filter).

Professional cleaning will be required if:

  • the contaminant is biological in nature
  • the record has smoke damage
  • the particulate is sooty, greasy, deeply ingrained or causing significant staining.

Do not attempt to use chemicals, solvents, detergent or water to clean soiled records. Do not attempt to clean photographic, magnetic or film-based records–refer to a specialist.

Torn or fragmented records

To salvage torn or fragmented records (e.g. from age or mishandling):

  • collect and contain the fragments with the original record using polypropylene sleeves, re-sealable bags, envelopes, folders or boxes
  • label the containers so that they can be identified in the future
  • refer to a trained professional.

Note: It may be possible to piece fragments together before scanning or digitising if you have the right equipment, however this can be painstaking work.

Heat affected or charred records

Heat affected or slightly charred records will be particularly fragile and need to be handled carefully.

If the records are just damaged around the edges, it may be possible to trim the damaged edges and to replace bindings and covers. You will need to make sure that you aren't losing any information when doing this.

If records are heavily distorted or have other materials melted or fused to them, they will require a professional to salvage them. Contact QSA Preservation Services for more information.

Review and report

Your agency should review and report on the incident to help understand the impacts and inform changes to procedures, processes and response plans.

Specific recordkeeping issues include:

  • a summary of actions taken to respond to and recover from the incident, including salvage of records
  • details of the effects on records or recordkeeping systems
  • damage to information infrastructure or interruption to services
  • any loss of records, their replacement or restoration
  • authorisation for or documentation of the disposal of lost and damaged records.

You must ensure the impacted records cannot be salvaged.

Records affected by water, smoke, mould, and pests can often be saved. Your agency should also have one or more backups of your systems and the impacted records that you can use and restore.

Disposal authorisation will be required if the impacted records are:

  • Damaged and cannot be salvaged, and/or
  • Missing

How to apply

Your application will be assessed and written notification of the outcome provided.

The State Archivist may seek additional information, clarification and/or action from your agency if necessary.

Retain your completed application and written notification from the State Archivist in addition to normal destruction documentation.

Resources and tools

Resources and tools for records management have been developed to help you implement best practice records management in your agency.