My visit to the Audiovisual Conservation facilities of the U.S. Library of Congress was prompted by a desire to learn about the steps a first class archival facility uses to preserve and store recorded media, in particular, vinyl records. There is a wealth of products available to the consumer for record care and cleaning, but very little concrete information about the processes or their effectiveness, apart from what is supplied by the various product manufacturers; most of what I learned was based on personal experience, experimenting
with different cleaning methods, machines and commercially available “cleaning fluids.” Although one cleaning machine was and remains extant from days when vinyl was a mainstream medium—the Keith Monks machine— most of the cleaning machines, and the variety of cleaning fluids, pads, brushes and the like seemed to flourish only after the death of the vinyl record as a mainstream medium, in the mid-1980’s. Perhaps that makes sense- with far fewer vinyl records being manufactured, more users depended on used or out of print vinyl, where the need for an effective cleaning regime is most evident.
The Library publishes a basic set of guidelines on the proper handling and care of audiovisual materials which covers record cleaning. See http://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/record.html Although the Library acknowledges the existence of commercial cleaning solutions, they do not recommend one; instead, they provide a formula for making a solution based on Dow Tergitol, ™a surfactant that solubilizes oil or water based contaminants, and acts to break the surface tension of water (to enable it to migrate into the grooves). Methods are outlined for hand-cleaning discs and for use in a mechanized cleaner. In both instances, the guidelines recommend a thorough rinse with deionized water. These guidelines are well known among the DIY community and form the backbone of many discussions on record cleaning methods on the web. Since I had the opportunity, I thought I would quiz one of the specialists at Culpeper on their cleaning methods. What I learned confirmed that, although there are some “best practices,” there is no single foolproof way to effectively clean vinyl. Discussion with the Library also confirmed that cleaning was as much about process as it was product. Here are the Library’s responses to my questions, courtesy of Larry Miller, Recorded Sound Preservation Specialist:
Q: Are there any steps that you take for every vinyl record before you clean it, to “prepare” the record?
Q: Have you found a difference in effectiveness between purely manual cleaning and cleaning using a vacuum-type machine?
A: One difference is the amount of fluid they can use. Most hand-held cleaners are limited in the amount of fluid they can pick up. It’s not as simple as “the more fluid, the better,” but you do need to use enough fluid to put any contaminants into suspension so they may be removed. In most cases, the fluid is not dissolving contaminants, but merely putting them into suspension so they may be removed with the fluid. That process is easier with a substantial amount of fluid, more than can be removed by most hand-held cleaners.
Q: Do you find that repeated cleanings are sometimes necessary to eliminate audible contaminants from the record?
A: Unfortunately, yes. It depends upon a couple of factors: how dirty a disc is and the characteristics of the contaminants. Is the disc just dusty or does it have fingerprints which contain skin oils? How effective is the selected cleaning fluid for the contaminants in question?
Q: Do you clean, play and then reclean? Is this as much to let the stylus do some work, by dredging up loose contaminants from the grooves, as it is to check on whether the record has been effectively cleaned on the first attempt?
A: Normally, we do not reclean after playing. However, if a stylus picks up a substantial amount of contaminants during playing, further cleaning is recommended. I would add that, as a practice, it’s a bad idea to let a stylus do some of the cleaning because you risk damaging the record. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure at the points of contact between a stylus and a record groove, more than enough to grind some dirt into the vinyl.
Q: Do you vary the processes in multi-step cleaning, or simply repeat the same process?
A: Generally, the same process is repeated.
Q: The LOC advocates a rinse step, using “pure” water. I assume this is largely intended to try and remove cleaning fluid residue since water, alone, isn’t a terribly effective cleaner.
A: Yes, the rinse is intended to remove any trace of cleaning fluid residue. And, yes, water alone is not a very effective cleaning fluid.
Q: You also suggest using “deionized water”- what properties does this have over “distilled” water of the type you buy in the grocery store?
A: I can’t speak to the quality of grocery store distilled water. In general, distilling removes organic and inorganic impurities from water. In deionization, the emphasis is more upon removing minerals. Deionization tends to be less expensive than distillation. For the purposes of cleaning records, there is less need for the purity of distilled water because the primary concern is to not leave any mineral residue on a disc, which can happen with tap water.
Q: Has the Library experimented with “enzyme” cleaners?
Q: I gather from our visit that the Library has not begun using ultrasonic record cleaning machines of the type currently in vogue? Any intention to try one of these?
A: We hope to in the future.
Q: Are there any “tricks” that you have found to be particularly effective in cleaning?
A: If by tricks, you mean shortcuts, I don’t think there are any. There are no substitutes for a good record cleaning machine, a good record cleaning fluid, and good sleeves.
Q: Has there been any effort at the Library to evaluate different cleaning regimes on a scientific basis? Can we visually assess the results of cleaning by magnification?
A: In the past, some record cleaning fluids have been tested for the amount of residue they leave. I don’t know of any evaluation of the effectiveness of different cleaning methods.
Q: Are any lubricants or other treatments ever applied to vinyl records after they are cleaned?
A: No, not at the Library.
Q: I noticed that you recommend the use of compressed air to remove loose grit or lint. Any concern about the accelerants contained in ‘canned air’?
A: We recently acquired some rubber “air blasters” to use for this purpose.
Q: When you re-sleeve, do you use a plain paper liner or more exotic “rice paper” type inner sleeves?
A: For vinyl discs, we use inner sleeves of high-density polyethylene (HPDE). Being fairly smooth, this type of sleeve tends not to scratch the soft vinyl. However, certain types of “poly” sleeves should be avoided as they can actually leave a difficult to remove residue on a disc’s surface. Obviously, it’s best if the manufacturer specifies the material. But, as a rule of thumb, if a poly sleeve is frosted in appearance AND slippery to the touch, it’s okay. If it’s clear in appearance and sticky or tacky to the touch, it’s not.
I want to be clear that the rule of thumb applies to inner sleeves. High quality polyester outer sleeves, the type you put over an LP jacket to protect it from shelf wear are clear, but are not intended to directly house an LP.
Acid-free paper sleeves are perfectly acceptable, but some collectors don’t like paper sleeves because they can scratch the soft surface of a vinyl disc. However, it should be noted that this is a cosmetic issue. There is no sound on the upper surface of an LP. The sound is stored in the grooves. For picture discs or decorative discs such marbled vinyl, where the disc itself is an important artifact, not just a sound carrier, an HDPE sleeve is preferable to prevent scratches.
There are certain thin, round-bottomed HPDE sleeves that are particularly useful when you want to retain an original paper sleeve because it contains text or graphics. These sleeves are thin enough that you can insert an LP into it and then insert the sleeved LP into the original paper sleeve. However, these tend to be so thin that I do not usually favor them when replacing a paper sleeve. For that situation, I prefer using a thicker HDPE sleeve or a paper sleeve lined with HDPE, but there some older or foreign LP jackets that are smaller than usual and these thin, round-bottomed HDPE sleeves may be the best you can get to fit. Another possible solution to dealing with non-standard jackets is to trim a sleeve to fit. For example, sometimes just cutting the two corners of a sleeve that are to be first inserted into a tight jacket will do the trick. There’s no need to trim the other two and by not trimming those, you retain the most protection against the intrusion of dust. I should mention at this point that the usual practice is to insert a sleeve with its opening facing up.
When replacing the sleeves in a multi-disc set, HDPE-lined paper sleeves can be so thick that you cannot close the box. For this application, a thick HDPE sleeve without a paper shell works better. There are also two-disc HDPE sleeves which can work well in that application as well as for those rare single opening jackets that house two discs.
There is no one size fits all solution when it comes to sleeve replacement. You have to evaluate each item and choose what works best for that disc and jacket or box. Fortunately, as of this date, there are a number of good sleeves available.
Q: Any tricks for reducing static on records, apart from cleaning and re-sleeving? Do you use a so-called “anti-static” gun or ionizer, of the type used in the computer industry? What about relative humidity?
A: Keeping the record playing area reasonably humid is the best cure for static, but you have to find a good compromise. Too dry and you get static, too humid and you encourage the growth of mold. Anti-static devices can help, but unless the relative humidity is high enough, their usefulness is reduced because a static charge can build up so easily. Most people may not have a hygrometer to measure humidity, but if it is so dry in your record cleaning area that you get a static shock when you touch something metal, it’s too dry.
Also, cleaning with a fluid only temporarily lessens the static charge on a vinyl disc. It can soon build up again and statically charged discs attract dust. The best solution is to maintain proper humidity; 35% RH plus or minus 5% is ideal.
I will add that given the choice between too dry or too humid, the latter poses, by far, a greater threat to collections. Therefore, basements tend to be a poor site for storing collections because they tend to be damp and are prone to leaks or even flooding.
Q: Have you found any need to reclean a record after a period of time or does care in handling and re-sleeving obviate the need to reclean?
A: If a disc has been thoroughly cleaned, there is no need to periodically re-clean it unless it gets dirty through use. However, if a disc has not been cleaned, over time, contaminants can damage it. Even a small amount of dust can attract and hold enough moisture to encourage the growth of mold. The skin oils in latent fingerprints can attract microorganisms.
Many thanks to Larry Miller, Gene DeAnna, Bryan Hoffa and the rest of the staff at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation for allowing us into the inner sanctum to see and learn how it is done at the level of professional archivists. It helps to demystify the process and confirmed some basic truths I have learned along the way, largely through trial and error.
 Both VPI and Nitty Gritty introduced record cleaning machines in 1981, at the tail end of vinyl’s mainstream lifespan, but I’m not sure how prevalent the use of any of these machines was when first introduced.