through freeze drying process
action saved most documents
from mold damage
(June 2009) Freeze drying isnt just
for coffee. The high-tech procedure was used to save most of the records
and documents from water and smoke damage sustained during a major fire
on May 20 at the Jefferson County, Ind., Courthouse.
by Don Ward
began the arduous task of
cleaning debris out of the courthouse
and saving precious files and records
almost immediately after the
devastating May 20 fire.
It appears most things will be salvageable,
said Alan January, program director for the Indiana State Archives.
Quick action on the part of the Jefferson County commissioners
saved much of the records from irreparable damage.
He said disaster teams from the state were alerted early and were able
to get to the site within the time frame needed to make the recovery
as successful as possible.
Recovery crews from Electronic Restoration Services Inc., a nationwide
disaster recovery and restoration company based in Livonia, Mich., were
hired to do the job. They hauled away three semi-truck loads of computer
and paper documents to their labs in Michigan. Many documents were restored
within a week.
Things went pretty smooth once we were able to really get in and
work, said Deb Hamann, the general manager for ERSs Indianapolis
branch. We were able to bring out the documents from the basement
and the first and second floors and get them frozen before mold or other
micro carbons could start to damage them.
January said mold is the biggest enemy of wet paper documents because
it absolutely ruins them. Ideally, documents need to be recovered within
a 48-72 hour time frame and either frozen or dried to prevent mold from
Hamann said ERS recovery crews will be back on site at the Jefferson
County Courthouse to retrieve documents from the third floor as soon
as it is safe to do so. Teams had to wait until the cupola and bell
tower were removed from the damaged building before they could get to
the third floor documents.
As far as those documents go, how damaged they are will depend
on several factors, including where they were, how they were stored
and how wet they are, she said.
The recovered courthouse documents, many of which are irreplaceable,
were stored in a special facility to be vacuum freeze dried. The company
also recovered much of the courthouse electronics and artwork.
Katie Mullen, conservator for the state library, said that while the
vacuum freeze drying sounds like a strange process, it works wonderfully.
It is the best method for such a recovery process, particularly
when dealing with mass amounts of documents, she said. Several
thousand cubic feet of documents were removed from the courthouse.
Mullen said that even during a house fire, documents should be immediately
put into a freezer if they cant be spread out to dry with fans
or the sun. A simple kitchen freezer will work, she said.
Of course the documents will need to be thawed and dried out at a later
During vacuum freeze drying, however, the thawing process is eliminated.
The frozen papers are put into a special vacuum sealed facility where
they are out-gassed. The process takes the ice and paper through a process
called sublimation, which forces the ice to skip the thawing process
that would turn it into a liquid (water) and instead turns it straight
into a gas. The technique uses the gas pressure laws in chemistry,
This is the most successful recovery I have ever witnessed,
said Mullen. It almost never goes this well, but the commissioners
immediate response to the disaster and quick decision-making saved those
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