19 January 2016

that’s audio file, not ‘audiophile’: an archives ingestion emergency

I recently got some music at my favorite place, Roadside Records. That is, I found some records waiting for trash pick-up on the side of the road. The pile included over 100 LPs and about forty 45-rpm singles. I recognized a lot of artists from the 1970s and ‘80s.

They were sitting in front of a self-storage place and had apparent water damage, but I stuffed them into the car and brought them home to see if any were worth keeping. Fortunately, my wife was out of town for a few days. I had space to spread out and do triage. I started with the 45s.

These had been stored in a open plastic rack, most with their paper sleeves. After sitting outside, none of the sleeves was stable, so I discarded each as I removed the disk. But because the disks had been well-maintained until going to the curb, all but three were still playable, with most in rather good condition. I threw out the three broken disks, set aside the remaining 35, and moved on to the LPs. I ended up digitizing most of the singles and keeping fourteen of them.

The albums were more of a challenge. While the singles had been stacked, in their rack, on another piece of furniture outside the facility, the large cardboard box of LPs was resting directly on the ground and moisture had seeped through. Several of the albums were ‘protected’, either by their original cellophane wrapper or an aftermarket protective sleeve. And while this layer of exterior protection did help stave off the worst of an overnight out of doors, it ultimately caused much bigger problems.

The first step, then, was to remove the sleeve and retail cellophane and extract the object. Next, I examined the package, hoping the cardboard sleeve was in good shape. If so, I wiped it with a microfiber cloth before removing the next layer. Sometimes, though, water damage caused the cardboard to fall apart in my hands. Even worse, the combination of moisture and sealed environment in their rental storage space had sprouted mold colonies inside many of the record wrappers. A good number had to be discarded immediately, and the damage was so severe between (alphabetically) Pat Benatar and Neil Diamond that nineteen albums were beyond any salvage.

So I’ve set aside or discarded the cover jacket, and now have the disk in hand. It may be in a paper or plastic internal protective sleeve. If so, the sleeve comes off and, unless it is printed original album art, immediately goes in the trash. The mold potential outweighs any protective value. Liner art goes to sit with the jacket, though, for attention later. Now we’re down to the vinyl sound disk.

Now for a quick visual inspection, aided by a microfiber cloth. First, is the album intact? The LPs all were, but one of the singles had been discarded because of cracks. Next, is it clean? Here, the real value of plastic sleeves showed. Album jackets with outer plastic wraps developed mold. Albums with inner plastic sleeves might also develop mold on the cardboard, but if so, the important part - the sound-carrying vinyl - was separated from that mold. Inner plastic sleeves meant clean records. Records with paper sleeves, or loose in the cardboard, came into direct contact with the mold and required additional attention.

Now I’ve got a stack of records that might be playable. The question after ‘can we’ is ‘should we’; this is the fun part. Going through the stack, it’s easy to eliminate records I’ll never want to hear, much less own. A total of 87 albums ended up playable. Most of those, like Greatest Hits from Elton John, The Eagles, and Air Supply, were easy. The music is easy to find, and the records themselves have no historic significance as objects. I guiltily slipped these records back into their sleeves, if those remained intact, and returned them to curb, hoping both that someone else would give the music a home, and that the records would not spread mold if they did find another taker.

My stack of material to process greatly reduced, I confronted my final question: use, or archival? I now had about thirty albums which were at least interesting enough to digitize in part. But while all would need cleaning before that, some might be worth keeping, meaning extra attention for them. I decided to deal with those after ripping the music I wanted to keep from albums I wouldn't and adding those records to my curbside pile.

Cleaning vinyl is a lost art. When records were the best media for music, everyone had supplies for their care. But MP3 files don’t need cleaning, CDs are usually okay without attention, and most of us don’t have purpose-made record care equipment now. While special solutions are available, I checked my textbooks and realized that pure isopropyl alcohol works just fine. Gently using a cotton pad to go around the disk, this removed decades of dust and, in almost every case, any trace of mold from the grooves.

Finally, we’re ready to convert the sound from analog encoding to a digital file, making it much more practical and portable. I use a convenient tool, the Profile Pro USB Turntable with Input. It’s an inexpensive device and the results aren’t great, but it is for a use copy, after all. I make one take, save it as a WAV.file, and import the track into iTunes. I should make more of an effort with the sound quality, but if I want to hear something in its full glory, I’ll put it on the stereo, not my iPod. That’s why I keep some things as archival copies. I digitized well over 250 songs.

But only nine disks from this stack of 115 LPs made it into my physical collection. Some things I thought might be worth hearing, were not. Some that were, weren’t worth keeping. Of the final nine, only four were complete with jackets. Those four were cleaned against mold as well as I could without causing too much additional damage.

This leaves just the cataloging and filing, which we all do differently. Now that it’s over, I’ve learned a few things. Some are mechanical. Plastic sleeves are bad for jackets, but good the the records. Microfiber cloth is great for a quick preliminary cleaning of both jacket and disk, and common isopropyl alcohol works well for cleaning the grooves. Mold really is that much of a threat. Digitization produces better results with more care and attention. This all just confirms in practice what we know in theory.

But I also now understand that archival donations are expensive. Time, both in staff and opportunity costs, is the issue: this project took about three weeks of spare time. The ingestion process, the ‘can we’, ‘should we’, ‘will we’ questions, takes time. Conservation - restoration and preservation - takes time. Processing for use; cataloging, arranging, building finding aids; so much work to describe an item, that others might find and make use of it. Historical significance and uniqueness are important, but so are these two questions: ‘does anyone want to use it’, and ‘can we afford it’. If either of those answers is ‘no’, it might be best to politely decline most material offered for archival donation. But I'll still stop at Roadside Records, every chance I get.