Transcription Discs in the Midst
Posted On: 06/30/2017 - 3:07pm, Posted By: Jim DaMico, Curator of Audio-Visual Collection
On November 4, 2014, voters of Hamilton County, Ohio, passed Issue 8 which raised, for a period of five years, the Hamilton County Sales tax from 6.75 to 7 percent. This one-quarter of one percent increase is funding the restoration of Union Terminal, home to Cincinnati Museum Center and the Cincinnati History Library and Archives. This date also marked my one month anniversary as the Curator of Audio-Visual Collections. With the Museum slated to be closed in July 2016 the clock began ticking to plan to move library and archive collections out of Union Terminal. As part of preparing the audio-visual collections move I first turned my attention to a collection of 16” lacquer transcriptions discs which were actually housed, off site in our research facility. Thankfully, with this collection we were only moving it one floor down from the existing location.
In this view, the transcription discs and 78 RPM records can be seen on the left hand side along the top shelf of the shelving unit closet to the wall. Storing heavier collections on the top most shelves should be avoided because you increase the risk of dropping fragile items and also possibly sustaining an injury when trying to retrieve an item(s). Photograph by Scott Gampfer.
This view shows individual 16” transcription discs as originally stored prior to moving. These are stored in standard metal LP racks that do not provide enough long term support and are packed tightly together which causes undue pressure and possible warping. The sleeves may be archival but this could not be confirmed. Leaving the discs out in the open allowed for an accumulation of dust on the records themselves. Photograph by Author.
The reason I chose this collection first is because of all the different audio-visual formats we have, the transcription discs, which are direct, groove recorded audio that predate magnetic audio tape and were typically produced in local or national radio stations from 1920s-1970s, are the most fragile media and contain one of a kind recordings. The same disc was used as a recording and playback media source. In general, the discs are composed of aluminum (late 1920’s-1940), steel, and glass or fiberboard cores and laminated with lacquer of either a cellulose nitrate or acetate cellulose formulation.
Examples in our collection come from WLW Radio such as Reminiscin’ With Singin’ Sam, a program that began around 1925 and ran through 1930 and featured Harry Frankel, a Vaudevillian in the 1920's before turning to radio and national fame as a balladeer; Your Sons at War, a Sunday morning program during World War II that consists of interviews, dramatizations and letters from U.S. Service men and women serving in Europe and in the Pacific and Moon River, a late-night music and poetry program that feature such singers as The Devore Sisters and Paul Brito. Happily, in 1993, broadcast historian Edwin Dooley, transferred these one of kind recordings to audio cassette tapes.
With a major collections move on the horizon, re-housing the collection into appropriate sized archival sleeves and boxes was of paramount concern and priority. This will ensure the long term preservation of the collection and protect it from further deterioration.
The first step that I undertook was to begin a review of the collection which meant climbing up on a ladder to pull a sample of discs down.
Author removing transcription discs for inspection. Photograph by Nick Massa.
Close-up view showing the short metal dividers which do not give adequate support to the 16” discs and the curling of the bottom of the sleeves. Photograph by Author.
Scott Gampfer, Author and Anne Kling reviewing the beginning stages of rehousing the collection. The discs are organized by recording title and will be re-sleeved and placed into archival 16” transcription disc boxes. Photograph by Nick Massa.
The following images, which were taken during the review process, demonstrate the telltale signs of media deterioration that are characteristic of recordings of this vintage and physical construction.
Full view of a deteriorating 16” Zephyr transcription disc which suffers from beginning stages of delamination. This failure is due to storage conditions with high humidity or temperature levels which cause a contraction between the lacquer which can be composed of either cellulose nitrate or acetate cellulose and the base which can be glass, aluminum or paperboard. Cellulose nitrate is especially vulnerable because it is hygroscopic which means that the lacquer will swell and eventually delaminate when exposed to high humidity levels or water. The visual evidence of channeling provided in this photograph suggests that this disc is composed of cellulose nitrate lacquer. Photograph by Author.
Close-up of a deteriorating 16” Zephyr transcription disc. Notice the channeling. Photograph by Author.
The next type of transcription disc that we have in our collection is composed of a glass core. These recordings on glass support were most often made between the war years of 1941-1945 due to the rationing of aluminum and steel.
Full view of a transcription disc on glass core that is delaminated. Photograph by Author.
A highly delaminated transcription disc on glass core. According to the modern VHS label, this recording was made on April 19, 1945 and with the name JB Kennedy. Unfortunately this recording may be beyond saving. One way that the information may be captured is having the disc digitized using IRENE Technology.
Close-up of delaminated lacquer. Photograph by Author.
Another form of deterioration that is found on transcription discs, that is sometimes mistaken for mold, is called exudiation, aka plasticizer loss. This presents itself as a white, greasy powder with a crystalline appearance that is palmitic or stearic fatty acids migrating to the surface of the lacquer. Do not try to clean a disc that suffers from this problem without consulting a professional audio archivist that has experience cleaning this type of substance.
Full view of a lacquer disc suffering from exudiation. Photograph by Author.
Close-up of label area showing exudiation.
We also hold examples of uncoated aluminum recordings one of which is a disc of the City Manager Plan, Part 9, and recorded March 18, 1932. These recordings can only be played back with an appropriate fiber stylus. The audio quality is generally low with a limited dynamic range.
Full view of an uncoated aluminum transcription disc made by the Speak O Phone Recording Studios, New York, New York which sold and rented personal disc cutting machines. Photo by Author.
Close-up of grooves and label. Photo by Author.
Processing the Collection:
We started processing the collection by organizing the discs by titles and placing them on shelves. We then spread out across a few long tables and began transcribing any information found on the original sleeves to the new archival sleeves.
Temporary shelving units where the discs were organized. The bottom left hand corner shelf has new archival boxes for the discs. Photograph by Author.
Assembly line setup to transcribe, re-sleeve and re-box the transcription discs. Photograph by Author
Transcribing title information and re-sleeving the discs. The final step is to place the discs into an archival box. Photo by Nick Massa.
The end result: each box contains up to 15 transcription discs and weighs approximately 13 pounds and is labeled with its contents. Photograph by Author.
From a preservation and collections management standpoint, the ideal storage environment for this type of collection would have a target temperature of 40-54°F and a relative humidity of 30-50%. The final step will be to do a complete inventory and organization of the collection.
For more information on the history, identification and preservation of sound recordings please see:
"Preservation Self-Assessment Program." Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP) | Phonograph Record. Accessed April 28, 2017.
For more information on digitizing fragile audio media, please see:
"Audio Preservation with IRENE." Northeast Document Conservation Center. Accessed April 28, 2017.