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December 9, 2009

Starting from Scratched

A few months ago a friend told me she had heard that you could fix a scratched DVD with toothpaste. There weren’t many details beyond that, but she assumed it meant you just rubbed some toothpaste over any scratches on the disc and that would fill them in somehow. Of course my mind jumped to trying to figure out how this might work, as well as to what the short term / long term degradation issues might be — not really to the DVD but more to the player. I don’t know if DVDs are that great of a format for thinking so long term about, but I really didn’t think it was a good idea to stick a toothpaste coated disc into a DVD player.

This was the same person whose father lost a number of paperclips in his computers disc drive while trying to poke around to make it run faster, so I wasn’t so sure about her technological reliability. That is until I saw this Wired Wiki post the other day on How to Fix a Scratched CD. There it was, tips not only on using (abrasive) toothpaste to polish out scratches on an optical disc, but also anti-glare spray, Brasso metal polish, wax or something called Meguire’s Deep Crystal Paint Cleaner which is for automotive use.

It sounds crazy, and normally something like this would send me off mumbling about archivally sound practices and how kids just don’t respect things anymore and grumble grumble grumble, but this time I didn’t have that same reaction. Maybe it’s because it’s hard to care about the piles and piles of commercially produced discs out there. Even without being loofahed, they aren’t going to last all that long.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen enough ad hoc or re-purposed tools being used in archives and on collections that these things don’t phase me anymore (audio engineers sometimes seem part mad scientist). Maybe these make-dos are not the best thing for the media, but the simple fact is that many of the tools we need to do our work have not been created or are no longer being produced. Cleverness and inventiveness are necessary traits of the archivist / preservationist, and who knows when some out of left field solution might be the correct one.

Or maybe it’s because these kinds of solutions, while dealing with digital content, are actually more about physical process. They are about solving the ways that physical degradation like scratches impede the mechanisms of disc reading.

That last must be it, because what bothers me about the wiki on “how to fix a scratched CD”  is the cavalier attitude about file formats and blindly trusting computers & digital distribution.

The authors conclude that “you don’t have to worry about scratching your MP3 like you can a compact disc,” as if that means you don’t have to worry about other issues with digital media. And they suppose that, “If you lose your music, chances are, in the future, your music store will replenish the music you bought from them for you at little or no cost,” which is a rather optimistic outlook that commercial media providers will suddenly turn so altruistic.

The kicker seems to be that they recommend using Error Correction when importing particularly damaged materials to something like iTunes as MP3. As our own Dave Rice has shown, digital file transfer and transcoding are particularly fraught areas in maintaining a persistent object. The audio of an error corrected CD may sound fine, but reformulating the digital makeup of a file is the same as reformulating its physical structure. Even though you cannot always see the results as you can with a physical object, the changes have occurred and should be taken with the same consideration as how you physically handle an asset or what kind of image storage/transfer decisions you make.

We’re moving toward the Cloud, but that doesn’t mean we should let our conceptual hold of our media become ethereal as well. You don’t have to understand every smidgen of code (that’s the technical term for a piece of code, isn’t it?), but working in a world where archives are becoming more digi-centric does require that you understand how file formats work and what their transfer and transformation mean. It seems like starting all over once again, but its better than accessioning 40 boxes of minty fresh smelling discs.

Joshua Ranger

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