Recover and salvage your records after a disaster

When it is safe to do so, start to salvage what records you can.

  1. Salvage records according to their priority (i.e. vital and permanent value records), type and extent of damage, and your salvage plan.
  2. Stabilise records by air drying or freezing according to their condition and resources available.
  3. Engage salvage resources (e.g. commercial freezer, storage, or salvage providers) if the incident is beyond your agency's resources.
  4. Stabilise and clean up the site and restore services and environmental conditions (ensuring the area is completely dry).
  5. Re-shelve clean dry records.
  6. Review and report.

Store records with the same type of damage together (i.e. wet vs dry, dirty vs clean), but away from other records.

Find out how to salvage:

Find resources and more information on disaster recovery and salvaging records.

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 us 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.