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Flemish company steps in to rescue flood-damaged archives

© State Archives

Amid the death and destruction of homes and property caused by the July floods in Wallonia and parts of Flanders, not much attention was paid to other forms of damage, such as archives.

Now a company based in Dendermonde in East Flanders has moved in to try to save what can be saved, and restore what can be restored.

One of the major problems is that archives, including records of births, marriages and deaths, tend to be stored in underground spaces, and underground spaces are the most susceptible to flooding damage. And when we see images of the chaos caused to entire buildings in Pepinster, Chaudfontaine and other municipalities, it should come as no surprise that documents have also suffered.

And that is a job for Object Care, a company based in Baasrode, now part of the city of Dendermonde.

We saved the archives from the water in Theux, Pepinster, Trooz and Chaudfontaine,” said curator Jaap Van der Burg.

That means recent population registers and a lot of photo material, but also old documents, charters and deeds of incorporation dating back to the 1700s.”

The team has methods that might strike the layman as odd. Documents are in packages kept in the deep-freeze – including some 800m of books.

They’re waiting for a drying process. Drying them all in one go is impossible, you need too much space for that. So you have to buy time until you can start. And you do that with freezing temperatures.”

Photos, on the other hand, would be destroyed by freezing, so they are kept sealed up in water.

And ideally in the same dirty water we found them in. Everything is now in balance. If you put them in a bag with clean water, nature will look for a balance there again and pieces of your photo will fall apart.”

The drying process takes place in a tunnel through which air blows softly, and where pages are turned at intervals to allow each page its turn to dry.

Drying means having a lot of patience and letting the air do its job. The biggest mistake people make when a book falls into water is drying it with a hair dryer. That’s how you ruin it.”

According to the company, the clean-up operation in Wallonia from their point of view will take at least three years, so extensive is the damage.

Disaster films are prettier than the misery we saw in the affected villages,” said curators Van der Burg and Greet De Saedeleer. At the same time, they remain confident that with time and the proper treatment, the damaged archives will survive for generations to come – albeit perhaps removed to an attic space.