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After the Deluge

By Daniel Hubbard | April 21, 2013

300_1927_Mississippi_flood_Mounds-Cairo_IL_highwayFlooding is a topic that has forced itself upon me this week. Two and a half times the normal rainfall for all of April in 20 hours is something that one notices, especially when the sump pump was already running. So what do floods have to do with genealogy?

1 Floods of information

I would think that this is the genealogists favorite form of flood. A discovery or chance meeting opens the proverbial floodgates. It is a wonderful sort of flood. Just remember to keep your head above water or once the flood has passed you by, you’ll need to try to figure out the origins of all the records that the flood waters left behind. There is no surer way to deflate ones sense of genealogical elation, than to realize you have no idea what you have, how you got it or how you were thinking when it was clear that it all fit together.

2 Ancestral Floods

There are lots of reasons that people do the things they do. Centuries later it is not always so easy to determine what those reasons were. In fact, often we need to consider ourselves lucky to know anything about what an ancestor did. Discovering the why can be cause for amazement.

Floods sometimes provide that “why.” One of my ancestors was the first settler in his little corner of Ohio. He arrived, found a convenient creek and built his cabin. There was no one there to tell him what that creek did in the spring. When summer changed to winter and then the thaw came, he found out. His cabin may have been simply flooded or actually washed away. Accounts vary. Either way he was not there the following spring.

3 Flood in the Courthouse

Those are not music to the genealogists ears. After years of trying to find a mysterious ancestor, we finally discover the right place and take the step of approaching the holy of holies, the county courthouse. Filled with hope and awe we discover that the records we need were destroyed in a flood in 1927 and we are roughly 90 years too late. Time to investigate alternative records…

4 Flood in the Basement

In my case the basement flood was not too bad. It has been a lot of work but the damage is minimal. I didn’t have any genealogy books or papers hidden away down there. Some old college books were where they shouldn’t have been and now I get to test my skills at book salvage on such classics as Fundamentals of Philosophy, Thermal Physics, Numerical Analysis, Howard Anton’s Calculus and the complete scripts of Monty Python. That last one does hurt a bit so I hope my preservation efforts go well.

When I first started checking into caring for wet books I fully expected to find heated arguments over what to do and some really obviously terrible advice—microwaved Shakespeare anyone? Sadly, I didn’t find anyone recommending slamming a soaked book down on a table, opened to the middle and taking aim with a blow dryer set on scorch. The general gist of what I found is summed up in these steps:

  1. Soaked books- Don’t try to separate the pages. They will be too weak and because they will be stuck together, you might crack the spine. Stand the book up on something absorbent with the covers open slightly and let the water drain out.
  2. Wet books- Put plain paper towels (no printing) between every 20-30 pages. Too much extra material might strain the spine or warp the covers. Let the paper towels hang out so that the water they absorb can evaporate. If the towels become wet, change them.
  3. Damp books- Stand up with the pages fanned out. Make sure the air circulation around them is good.
  4. Almost dry books- Lay flat in as close to the proper shape of the book as possible. Put a weight on the book and wait as long as it takes to be completely dry.

Just proceed from one step to the next as the book dries. It also seems to be commonly recommended to put wet books in the freezer. This can accomplish two things. It can keep them from molding while you are busy with other cleanup or just busy drying other books. It can also freeze dry them. Putting the books in a freezer can allow the ice that will be produced to turn directly into vapor, a process called sublimation. This makes sense to me if the freezer is frost-free, otherwise, the better it works, the more ice will build up in the freezer.

Some people seem to confuse the two reasons for freezing. For simply storing the books until you can work on them, many people recommend putting them in zip-lock bags but then say that freezing has the extra benefit that it can dry the books. If the vapor is sealed into a bag with nowhere to go, I don’t think much drying will occur and what does occur will mean ice crystallizing in the bag.

Institutions do use industrial strength vacuum freezers to salvage books. How well this will work with the frost-free freezer that is part of my fridge remains to be seen, but the experiment has begun.

Luckily, I’m doing this more for the sake of the investigation than because any of my genealogy books or papers are involved. If some boxes of old books hadn’t taken a wrong turn the last time we moved, I wouldn’t even have my current test subjects. Which leads me to two rules of thumb.

  1. Keep papers and books far away from the basement floor.
  2. Keep them far away from the roof.

Positioning your successfully salvaged basement books directly below next year’s roof leak would be what is known in the preservation business as a “bummer.”

The other rules of thumb are:

  1. Scan or take digital photographs of invaluable papers.
  2. Once those are digitized, it is time to digitize the not so invaluable stuff.
  3. Back up the digitized versions.
  4. Back them up again.
  5. Keep a backup somewhere else. If a flood destroys your papers and a lightning strike fries your computer and your dog eats your backup disk because you are too freaked out by the flood and the lightning to feed him, you will be very happy to have a DVD or hard drive waiting far, far away in safety.


I’ve always enjoyed the mystery of a faded, damaged document. They look mysterious as if viewed through a veil that cannot be pulled aside. What does it have to tell me? How did it become the way it is? Why was it kept despite its condition? On the other hand, actually being able to read them is a whole lot better.

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