Digitisation project 5: shellac and lacquer disks

The digitisation of shellac and lacquer disks is extremely important for the preservation and protection of commercial music and radio recordings from the first half of the twentieth century. After a preparatory study by an intern at the National Audiovisual Institute, meemoo started the actual digitisation in 2017.

From March to August 2016, an intern from the Master's course ‘Gestion des Patrimoines Audiovisuels’ at the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA) was involved in the preparations for the digitisation of shellac and lacquer disks. He researched the number and condition of these carriers among our content partners – a dozen cultural heritage institutions and one broadcaster.

Based on the results, we drew up the data model, the packing method and the tender documents. The actual digitisation will started in spring 2017.

Shellac and lacquer disks use the same mechanical principle, but they are made from different materials. Both types come in different sizes and playing speeds and the playback equipment is still available. The records themselves are often damaged, however, as mould and dirt can easily develop in the grooves. The records are also fragile and peel or flake easily, due to the influence of fluctuations in temperature and humidity. The digitisation of peeled or flaked records is extremely expensive and not feasible on a large scale in Flanders.

Shellac records usually contain commercial music but there will only be a few copies of the specific recording. The shellac record replaced wax cylinders and was the most successful sound carrier in the first half of the 20th century, until the cheaper and less breakable vinyl took the stage.

Lacquer disks were mainly used for recordings of or for the radio and were very popular in the 1930s to 1950s. Eventually, competition from the 1/4-inch audio tape ended the era of the lacquer disk.

This digitisation project went through an expansion of volume. The end goal is 33,100 shellac record sides and 11,000 lacquer disk sides from VRT and 5,500 shellac and lacquer disk sides from 15 cultural heritage institutions. Together, it amounts to around 47,500 shellac and lacquer disk sides, which will be digitised at the end of 2020, by Gecko and VRT.

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