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ARSCLIST  September 2005

ARSCLIST September 2005

Subject:

MLA Disaster Talk 99 7 pp

From:

Steven Smolian <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Association for Recorded Sound Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 18 Sep 2005 08:26:16 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

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This is a revised talk I gave at the Music Library Association in 3/15/1999.  It was written after I had been called in to write an ex-post-facto disaster recovery plan when the Boston Public Library sound archive was severely damaged by a main break.  

Location.  Basements are used for record storage because records are heavier than books and often exceed the building inspector's floor load tolerances.   Basements, of course, are the areas most vulnerable to the invasion of water as well as moisture problems from ground seepage.  

My advice:  Keep commercial items here which constitute the bulk of most collections and are replaceable, even if some are at considerable cost. Keep unique items- acetate discs and all tapes above this level, preferably under temperature and 
humidity control.  Tapes weigh less than books, acetates more but you will usually have many fewer of the latter.  	

Monitor your storage area, particularly for humidity.  Run a dehumidifier in the record storage areas when necessary.  If you're not sure, use one.  Be sure they drain well.  Don't stint on this.  It's the cheapest method of remedial preservation by far.    

Filing.  Be sure to file discs and tapes vertically.  Discs should be shelved with enough pressure at both ends to prevent warping but loose enough so notes stored within containers do not cause the disc adjacent to them to warp inside their sleeves. 
Shelving.  The physical layout of an audio storage facility should consider the intrusion of water, it likely entry and pooling places, and the effect this will have on the storage area's contents.  Use the bottom shelf for supplies, duplicates, old hi-fi equipment, etc.  
Don't put core archive materials here, no matter how tempting.  I'd define core as anything cataloged or awaiting cataloging.  This should be a rule enforced by library accreditation committees.    

Use steel shelving- moisture will wick up wooden shelves and affect materials placed on them above the level the water reaches.  

Media.  Many recording media are sandwiches, each layer expanding and contracting at a different rate as temperature changes.  Under flex, the meat of the sandwich is usually exposed to the atmosphere.  Some media are especially vulnerable to long-term chemical changes initiated by exposure to water vapor during this flexing process (polyester-based tape particularly), and most are subject to mold (wax cylinders, LPs, tape).  Water is really the greater enemy though heat becomes an increasingly serious factor when temperature exceeds 110 F or drops below 40 F.

Do not allow recordings to be frozen.  Records are prone to shatter at low temperatures and 78s sometimes develop a film on the surface when brought back to room temperature.  Handling cold 78s is like handling ice cubes.  Wear gloves.  For audio tape, temperatures below c. 40 F are a particular problem as binder lubricants leach to the surface and may not be reabsorbable later.  

Media identification.  Someone must be on site who can quickly identify each of the media and submedia.  Preferably, there should be two, in the event one is away.  Library training in this area is cursory at best.  Perhaps MLA should have a table in the exhibition area which displays and describes the various media and publish little aids to identifying them.  Maybe an instructional video tape?  It is essential that the nature of these materials be understood before the deluge.

Identify beforehand the materials family to which each object belongs: acetate, uncoated aluminum, glass-based acetate discs, aluminum based acetate discs, polyester tape, acetate tape, etc.  Rubber stamp or write this on the part of the container most likely to survive a water attack, perhaps on the inside of the sleeve or on the reel.  Shelve objects by generic type.  Then apply the best procedure for each type.  

LPs.  Before shelving LPs, remove all plastic see-through inner sleeves and substitute the milky high-density plastic semi-opaque sleeves or, if necessary, paper sleeves.  Plastic from the see-through sleeves migrates and sticks to the disc surface and won't come off.  There is a slow, somewhat effective treatment with a citrus-based solvent to remove this stuff  from the surface and out of the groove trench, but it is  tedious work and not always completely successful. Afterwards, surfaces may still be crackly and the plastic remaining in the groove may accumulate on the stylus when the record in played.  Be sure not to add fingerprint oils to the discs by careless handling during the rescue process.   Use proper gloves. 

Part of the dollar value of Elvis records is determined by the presence of the specific printed inner sleeve that helps identify the edition.  It is also often the sole source of pop music lyrics. Put the record and preservation inner sleeve into the cardboard jacket.  Place this unit into an outer plastic sleeve (this will be of the see-through variety, as it won't hurt the cardboard jacket's printed surface), and slide the original sleeve and any other
inserts in the back of the outer sleeve, the open side facing  up. This prepares the complete object for long-term storage better than leaving the inserts inside the cardboard jacket.  An added advantage of this procedure is that you can put stickers on the plastic 
outer which can indicate arrival date, cataloging status, condition and even a bar code without botching up the jacket.  

45s.  The performance from a 45 is usually the same as at least one version on an LP or CD.  Seldom are they separate recording sessions but they are often mixed differently, more compressed to make them clearer over road noise for on-air and ambient bar and dance floor clatter for jukebox play, and may have portions of the LP cut edited down with intros and complete verses missing.   It's often surprising how different the musical 
effect made by seemingly identical 45s and LPs of the same song may be.  Don't discard 45s because you think you have it on LP without checking carefully.  You may or may not care much, but a rather volatile group of your patrons will.

45 Sleeves.  Many more 45s have survived than the sleeves in which they came.  Picture sleeves, made for a specific release, have become very collectible, often selling today in multiples of 3 to 5 times the price now brought by the disc it contained.   Thinner than LP sleeves, the paper on which they are printed is subject to "ring wear," a circular discoloration caused by the rubbing of one package against another, as well as creases.  
You'll want to inspect each sleeve as it comes in to upgrade your preservation copy.  Watch out for price stickers, staple holes, etc.  Keeping picture sleeves in plastic outer sleeves is essential.  

LP and EP covers are subject to the same problems, only less so because the paper is cardboard backed.  A clean sleeve can give a collector a thrill- he thinks he's entered a time warp where his cherished object is brand new.  These are, or should be the core supporters of your pop collection.  If you want their stuff given to you, you have to show them that you understand and respect the rules by which they play.  And, not incidentally, it protects your collection if there is a flood.

78s.  Some fanatic collectors insist on having the original, thin paper, acidic, often crumbly sleeves on records so they can have the package complete as offered to the public when the disc was new.  Personally, I keep one semi-worthless record with its contemporary sleeve, as the label and sleeve design were usually coordinated by an art department and speak for their era.  I shelve these separately as research and exhibition items.   

This leaves you free to put the rest of the 78s into preservation sleeves.  Kurt Nauck now offeres sleeves appropriate to this use.  Be sure any you use have center cut-out holes, otherwise you have to add data from the label by hand or, printed, with a adhesive label of indefinite longevity to allow easy organizing.  Be sure you have worked out what you want to appear where on the jacket beforehand.  I mark a rough grade on mine which speeds up the copy-checking process when a new collection arrives.  If there is no cut out center hole in the sleeve, the label design must be indicated as well.  Many discs are more desirable in one pressing or a few pressings but, if in print for many years, sound awful when made from later stampers drawn from worn masters. Yet some of the noisiest  pressings may be on the earliest labels. "Ya gotta know the territory." 

Shellac absorbs water.  When exposed continually to high humidity, the playing surface becomes pimply.  These additional zits are read by the stylus as little, continual pops which we hear as added surface noise.  For this reason, this collector usually prefers US pressings of English records because they are quieter, not having been used in a humid, island environment.  What does this tell you about leaving 78s in a humid basement and expecting them to sound well? 

Radio discs, home recordings, etc.  These divide into two basic types.  The first was mass produced for delayed broadcast and, coming in all sizes, look much like commercial 
discs, shellac or vinyl. They are often 16" in diameter.  The second, cut into a lacquer surface flowed over either aluminum or glass, will be unique or made in very limited numbers and will probably contain your most important disc recordings.  Again, they come in all sizes and are often found in the 16" diameter.  They are old, tricky to rerecord and may appear in worse condition than they actually are.  They should be highlighted for content appraisal and be among the first things transferred when money for professional copying becomes available. Pre-flood if possible. They should be kept on an upper shelf.  Water vapor will cause serious problems and immersion may destroy them.  As mentioned earlier, it's even better if they are stored above ground.  This should be the first group to get new sleeves.    

Be particularly careful of glass-based discs.  These can be identified by holding them up to an incandescent light bulb which you can see through the surface.  If opaque, they are aluminum based.  Put pieces of square cardboard the diameter of the disc on the outside of the paper sleeve and strap them around, leaving access to the content through the top.  A better solution is the have clear plastic sleeves that fit around the paper sleeve, putting the cardboard square and the sleeved record in the same plastic outer.  I don't know of anyone manufacturing clear plastic sleeves for 16" records.  Perhaps Bags Unlimited could be persuaded to make these on a custom basis.  Someone would have to foot the bill for the die.

Try not to put 10" record into 12" sleeves, etc.  When shelved, sideways pressure is unevenly distributed and lead to breakage of the larger sized items.  

After the flood

Acetate discs require immediate inspection and, probably, some treatment.  If wet, they should be towel dried.  If surfaces are powdery, do not specially remove the powder if possible.  This is dried leached-out plasticizer. So long as this is on the surface, it seals in the balance of the stuff, often castor oil.  Removing it lets more escape before crusting over again.  Acetate lacquer discs should be cleaned just before being copied, not as a matter of good housekeeping.

Watch out for loose or loosened labels.  Either affix them with scotch tape or number the disc with a china marking pencil in the label area and number the back of the label 
identically.  Never put loose labels into a sleeve with discs with the adhesive side facing the disc.  They slide to the bottom and, during the next humid incident, will become glued to the record's surface.

This is the place to arrange records by size and use accession numbers related to that size: 16- . 12-, etc.  Even a quick and dirty database requires careful definition.  There should be fields for accession number, date of recording, performer, recording source, content, and side number at a minimum.   Do not play them during this process unless properly cleaned beforehand.  Leave fields blank rather than make things up.  Add any speculation in a notes field.

Cataloging.  I see an enormous amount of time wasted by library staffs because when they DO catalog, the record's vintage (i.e., label design) and condition are not part of the catalog record.  Every gift collection which arrives subsequently has to be checked visually against older holdings, disc by disc.  But, of course, you already know labels and grading from library school, right? 

Shelving order- commercial records.  Shelve records by genre and by size, then by manufacturer and number. There are very few sound archives of size where the holdings are truly cataloged.  Virtues of this system include being able to use WERM, Moses, 
Rigler-Deutsch, Phonolog, Rust, Schwann and all the other finding aids.  Check new arrivals against present holdings, identify possible duplicates, offering a rapid way of listing disaster-destroyed records should the dam break- write the manufacturer name once, then numbers in numerical order.  Be sure to include prefixes and suffixes when required.  Should it be necessary to obtain replacements or should there be an opportunity to fill in a  run, someone with a portable phone can be stationed before your 
records talking to a supplier whose stock is in  the same order, and give quick yes/no responses to offers of specific discs by their catalog numbers.  Yes, you have to leave some shelf space at the end for expansion and yes, occasionally you have to shift 
everything.  If it weren't for this one drawback, manufacturer and number sequence is the perfect solution.  Well, it's not a drawback.  It's a cop-out.  It's laziness.

Tapes: Reel-to-reel.  For items above the waterline, tapes are the flood victims likely to suffer first and most, possibly excepting acetate discs.  They should be set aside, the boxes opened, force air dried (but not with heat) for at least a day to be sure the moisture is drawn from the core, moved to a dry location, inventoried, and have their content appraised to prioritize restoration.  Use a big fan.  Do not play them during this process.  Be assured that a flood or other intense exposure to moisture will be catastrophic in the long term and playing them now will accelerate their end and possibly destroy them.   As with acetate discs, be sure you'll be able to link the documentation with the tape later on.   As with acetate discs, restoring and transferring these so they give back all they are capable of will require professional skills and facilities.

Immersed or wet tapes:  Once they are wet, they are wet and to avoid mold, do not dry them until you can do so in a low humidity area.  As a fallback, once wet, keep them under water until you are ready to deal with them.  That isolates them from the air and prevents mold.  If a substantial portion has become wet, continually rinse cassette tapes in their containers until the water is clean, then force air dry.  Use running water, then distilled.  All the tapes will have to be copied.  Cassettes will have to be rehoused.  

Prioritization. Recognize that in an institutional setting, these are not to be considered as dollar-valuable museum objects but holders of sound and it is the sound you are most urgently trying to preserve.  Save the unique items first.  Commercial discs are made in great numbers as compared with home recordings. Replacing them costs money.  Replacing home recordings is impossible.  Replacing one-time local radio recordings is nearly so. 

Divide media into those submerged, those in contact with water, and those that are dry but have been exposed to evaporation.  This will determine your preservation activity sequence which will vary according to the media. 

Cleaning.  The nuts and bolts of cleaning the various recording media is best dealt with in a presentation and workshop, perhaps later distributed on a videotape.  Simply spoken from a platform, it becomes a bewildering stream of tough to digest identification 
data, product names and processes.  Besides, this was all covered in library school, right?

Cleaning rather than replacing.  Clean commercial records properly before deciding what is a hopeless case, what survived unscathed, and what should be scheduled for later replacement.  The Disc Doctor's fluid is terrific for cleaning commercial 78s.  
Needless to say, this is applied and quickly removed.  Bathing records is usually counterproductive.  Once clean, it often takes a practiced eye and ear to decide what must be replaced.  Keep anything questionable, set them aside, and have an expert look at them later. 

Record cleaning machines do not clean.  They only suck up what has first been loosened by the fluid as well as the fluid.  Be sure you know what the fluid is doing.

Unwanted collections.   All measures will not restore most of the objects to the somewhat slow, incremental deterioration they were undergoing prior to the disaster, but they do buy time for you to get the means to copy or replace them.  If you have no system to obtain this money, then disregard this note and apply your institutional energy toward more realistic accomplishments.

In that case, the step most beneficial to the long-term preservation of your unique sound materials is to give them up for adoption.  Convey them to an institution that will accept the curatorial responsibility that accompanies possessing them, one which allows you to retain whatever clearance rights will protect those involved in the making of the tape or 
disc, particularly any to which your institution committed itself when accepting them.  This issue should be considered when wording a deed of gift.     

Personnel.  When a disaster occurs, cancel all leaves.  This will cost money, but keeps your in-house experts from disappearing.  Have funds available and work with a travel agent who will deal with the ticket refunding, rereservationing, etc.  Be prepared to pay the airline penalties when you have to invoke this process.  Have an appeals system in place for marriages with relatives already coming from afar, etc.  This may be a union issue- in more than one sense.

Saving documentation
Keep in mind the urgency of saving the documentation and linking it to the recording.  Get a xerox machine in the work area once power is available.  If there is no elevator service to trundle a big one down (it's always down), perhaps a smaller one from Staples can be put with the emergency supplies.  A battery operated copier in reserve is not a crazy idea provided there are reliably fresh batteries available.    

Money. Have an emergency petit cash fund available and decide who authorizes its use.  I has to be someone with bureaucratic responsibility to make quick decisions but low enough down the chain to be among those getting their hands dirty during the initial post-disaster panic.  

Insurance.  Know your insurance policy.  There should be a regular lecture at your institution on this subject annually.  Your insurance company should consider this part of its responsibility.  How you do what you do may well affect what your institution gets paid later, if anything.   Policies vary greatly.  Find out what process is best to follow at your place. Your questions should be as specific as possible.  Check with the insurance company to see if a videotape of lost objects is acceptable, a still photo, etc.  Perhaps pictures on a digital camera.  Try to work with the company as well as its agent to avoid later misunderstandings.  Be sure updates concerning your policy make their way through the system to you.  Get it in writing.

Health.  There may well be a conflict between what you are asked to retain by the insurance company and what your common sense and the health department tell you to get rid of.  Know enough about your materials to have an idea if the byproducts of their getting wet can become a health hazard. Press through your employee organization 
and any other means for the fastest possible in-house accurate system for analyzing your working environment and for continual training for those responsible for using it.  These materials, no matter how valuable, shouldn't be worth your life.   

Though we are discussing records here, much of what has been said applies to all library materials.  Health issues will come as no surprise to your administrators- they've undoubtedly had sessions on this topic at their very own conferences.  Don't let them get away with pleading ignorance.  It should be your right as an individual to refuse to participate in the physical cleanup until the air is cleared.  But use this down time to plan and implement details of your recovery plan.

I wonder how Service Master employees are trained?  This kind of incident is their regular work environment.  What do they wear, what pre and post work personal cleanup do they go through.  Have they something to teach us?

 It should be becoming apparent that a sound archivist must have expertise in his field well beyond what any classroom offers today.  Should one not be on staff, hire a recognized sound archivist when putting together your disaster plan and again if there is a disaster.

Steve Smolian
 Revised 9/18/05

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