In the age of digitalization, why should risk managers, contractors and insurance professionals pay closer attention to document restoration? What type of work sites or clients require document restoration? What is the technical process to restore documents in a way that these items are later safe to use? 

The Why of Document Restoration 

The why of document restoration can be divided into three categories: Efficiency, legality and sentimentality. Over the course of 25 years, I have worked on many different document restoration projects. Here are some examples related to efficiency, legality and sentimentality: 

  1. Restoring books from a private law library that were damaged by the unintentional activation of a water sprinkler system. Many of these books were out of print and could not be replaced.
  2. Restoring a large, 19,000-book law library in a two-week period. This quick restoration project prevented a prolonged interruption in their services. 
  3. Restoring a homeowner’s damaged deed, which could not be copied without losing the document’s legal value. 
  4. Restoring a grandfather’s college certification of degree. Although the document holds no monetary value, it held sentimental value for the owner. 
  5. Restoring hundreds of students’ grade records at a local school after they got wet from trying to put out a fire. This school did not have historic records digitized.
  6. Restoring artwork made by a client’s grandchild. Of course, this had no monetary value, yet was highly sentimental for a grandparent. 
  7. Restoring hundreds of employee records stored in an office basement that were damaged from moisture and humidity. These records were being retained as required by the retention policy of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
  8. Restoring dental records in four days. This was the same time duration for the office to relocate and our urgent restoration project minimized or prevented business interruption.

Efficiency reduces the time of business disruption. For some projects, restoring files is necessary to get the business back in operation. In other words, document restoration can essentially save thousands of dollars lost in time not working. 

Other clients need water-damaged documents restored because they hold legal value. When water distorts or dilutes the ink of signatures on legal documents, it can void the agreement. One of the most common misconceptions I come across with clients is the belief that they can make photocopies of legal documents. In reality, a legal document needs to retain its original signatures and dates to be considered valid. 

For others, the value of the loss is emotional – a memento from a family member, a friend or a piece of history – that cannot be duplicated, copied or reproduced. In other words, the document is irreplaceable. Replaceable things are necessary, but they do not touch your heart like sentimental things.  

Water-Damaged Document Assessment 

Now that we have covered the why, let’s go into how water damages documents. For many documents, the ink can be diluted, distorted and make the information illegible. Even if you are able to dry the pages of the documents, mold spores will begin growing on the paper, especially if it has been wet past a certain time. This means that using these damaged documents – even in dry form – can be harmful to the users and environment. If wet files or books sit together for more than 48 hours, their ink will cross-bleed and render them difficult to read and recover. 

As a skilled document restorer, my team’s first step is to determine the severity and time period of the water loss. Even if the document is damaged by clean water, mold spores can start to grow on the paper. Our first goal is to stabilize the item by extracting the moisture. We use air dry and freeze dry depending on the situation. Before any action, we employ an industrial hygienist (IH) for contamination testing that makes sure the damaged document is safe to handle, clean and stabilize. This is an industry-wide standard, which ensures restoration workers and future users are protected. This step makes everyone’s job safer and easier, especially the contractors, restoration employees and future users of the document. 

After IH testing, our technical team begins the work of moving the documents to a different worksite for recovery. Our technicians seal damaged documents, files or books in plastic totes in order to stop additional damage or tears during the move. If the items are positive for mold, we build a special room to treat the mold spores. 

If the document is free of hazardous contamination, we use freeze-drying methods to stabilize books and files. If these items have less severe water damage, such as getting wet from a sprinkle of water, we use the air-drying method. Volume is also a factor in choosing between freeze-dry and air-dry methods. If you are trying to save thousands of files or bank boxes of papers, freeze-drying is an efficient way to stop the documents being further damaged from water.  

Replacing Versus Restoring 

Diverse skill sets go into play when restoring different types of damaged documents. First, determine the goals and objectives of your document restoration project. If you are trying to restore a damaged book, you need to first identify if it is still in print. Usually, books that are still in print are replaced, not restored. If it is out of print, what condition do you want it back? Do you want to back in perfect condition, retain it in the form it is, or restore it to best possible condition? Sometimes it is not possible to restore documents back to pre-loss condition.  

Certain documents, such as legal documents, cannot be copied. Restoring these require a different type of care. We try to keep the item in its original form as much as possible. We do not aim for pre-loss condition but best-possible condition. We freeze dry the document first, and then remove moisture on the outskirts by air-drying and pressing the paper flat to stop it from wrinkling and becoming wavy. We disinfect it as best as possible, and preserve it with encapsulation, basically placing it in a see-through bag and sealing all four sides. This is not the same as lamination, a step that would void the legality of the document. Encapsulation allows you to still access the legal document by removing the seal.   

When dealing with medical, dental, school and university files, many businesses use digital filing systems and digitized notetaking. However, we often forget that this is still a relatively new practice, introduced in the last few years in many medical facilities. These entities still have records that are not stored in the cloud, such as doctors’ handwritten notes. In these cases, there is the danger of breaching privacy and HIPPA codes. We are often asked to stabilize and photocopy these records. We work closely with the client to digitize these records, save them on flash drives and destroy the original documents using one- to five-millimeter cross-cut shredding. We have also recreated files after freeze-drying them. We go through them page by page, make photocopies and recreate new manila folders with the same labels.  

Working With a Partner 

Document restoration services depend on speed and value. It is advisable to add a reliable document restoration partner as part of your restoration services portfolio to give your clients the most successful path to recovery. If you work with large entities such as city municipalities, hospitals, schools, universities and businesses, it is time to add a document restoration contingency plan in your emergency response strategy. Of course, restoring electronics, appliances and machines is expensive, but documents need the most attention because they keep businesses legal and operational. It is not about the cost; it is truly about the necessity.  

Since losing certain documents is not an option, I regularly counsel my risk analyst, insurance and contractor clients to keep my number on their speed dial or phone favorites. No matter what event you are dealing with, your document restoration partner should arrive to the job site on the same day, if not within the same hour. When you come across documents damaged by water at a work site, do not throw in the towel too early! Whether it is an old graduation certificate damaged from a basement pipe leak or thousands of essential business records impacted by hurricane rain, document restoration can and should be offered in your scope of restoration services.