Restoring Your Home After a Disaster

When Prose Was On The Pyre: First Aid For Fire-Damaged Books

Unfortunately, books are often the belongings that are compromised during a fire. If you have a fine collection of books, the flames, smoke, and water will leave them in a depressing state. However, in some cases, you can save your books if you act quickly.

If your books are dry...

Then you are in luck. it is easier to stop fire damage on books that have been wet. Your first instinct may be to get a cloth and begin cleaning the soot off the covers. However, this should not be your first step. Soot and smoke residue from fires is extremely acidic, and getting it wet can actually make their damaging ability worse. So, begin by first using a dry cloth to wipe off the extra soot. 

Then, mix water with a little bit of dish detergent, and wet a soft cloth. Wring it out completely and then begin to wipe the books off. Pay special attention to the spine of the books, and tops, as these are most likely to have had the most exposure to smoke; books stacked on a bookshelf protect each other from being contaminated too badly. After wiping with a samp cloth, wipe with a dry cloth to remove as much water as possible. 

Allow the covers of the books to dry. If your books have leather covers or bindings, you will need to be more careful. Leather is porous, so smoke can really penetrate the fibers of the leather. Resist the urge to scrub the leather, even if it still smells of smoke after being wiped. Do not lay leather in the sun to dry, as this will cause it to stiffen. When the water has dried, you can treat the leather bindings with a little bit of tanning oil made for leather goods to protect the fibers against further damage from acidic smoke.

If your books are wet...

You have a longer task ahead of you. If your books were damaged by water used to put out the fire, your first task is to dry them out. Still wipe the cover and spines with soap water, and dry them, to remove as much lingering soot as you can. Then, you'll need to work on getting the moisture out.

You need to make sure that pages are separated carefully. You can do this by putting dry sheets of newspaper in between the wet pages, or by sprinkling a dry substance, like cornstarch, to help soak up the extra water. Then, you need to prevent your pages from wrinkling as they dry. You can do this by pressing and plying the pages, and by using fans to dry each page separately.

If the pages themselves have smoke damage...

You can attempt to repair the damage yourself, but the process is arduous. If your books are especially valuable, it is better to entrust this process to a fire damage restoration company. However, minor smoke can be repaired if you follow these steps:

  1. Never get the pages wet. This will set in smoke stains.
  2. Use a sponge to wipe away mild smoke. 
  3. If stains do not come out, you can try using a gum moldable art eraser on the marks.
  4. Wipe off any remaining residue with a dry cloth. 

If the eraser method does not work, the restoration company should jump in, because lifting intense damage from thin paper pages is precise work. You library may have been injured in the fire, but they do not have to become martyrs. Trust the advice of the restoration experts, read more, and follow the steps above, and your books should be back on the shelf in no time.