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While it doesn’t happen often, there are instances when the Audiovisual Preservation team at UCLA Library comes across a format that they’ve never seen before. With some of these rare formats, the biggest barrier to digitizing and creating an access copy for the researcher is the lack of research and knowledge about the format.

Maile Chung, postgraduate assistant conservator in the Preservation & Conservation Department, details her work to make a rare optical media content accessible to users.

A researcher's request

VCD from National Library of China

Recently, our team in the Audiovisual unit received a request that required the digitization of a series of optical discs, including CDs and DVDs, from around the world. One item in particular we were working on was from the National Library of China. At first, our team thought it was a CD, but yet it didn’t have any audio files on it. Then, we thought it was a DVD because it had video files. But it wasn’t behaving like a normal optical disc when put into a disc drive. Like a CD-R with photos or presentations, it would open a folder housing many more folders, many with file formats that we had never seen before.

It turns out this was a VCD (or video CD), which stores video format on a compact disc.

A brief history of VCDs

VCD from National Library of China

During the 1990s, technology was progressing rapidly and the media industry was figuring out how to best store digitally encoded content onto an optical disc. Originally released in 1993, VCDs were heavily used in Asia. While there were a few major motion pictures coming out on VCDs, there was no way for production companies to keep people from pirating these films because there was no copy protection on the disc. Introduced in 1995, DVDs not only had better features like more data storage, but it also allowed for copy protection to keep people from ripping movies off the DVDs and reselling them. Eventually, VCDs became less popular as the cost-effectiveness of DVDs increased.

The VCD digitization process

CLI (command line)

It took our team some time to figure out what format this optical media was–next we had to actually digitize the material on the disc. The digitization process necessitates that we use either CLI (command line, pronounced like klee) or a GUI (guided user interface, pronounced like gooey) to scrape the data off the disc and onto a computer as an accessible file form.

GUI (guided user interface)

We reached out to our colleague, Andrew Weaver(opens in a new tab), a media preservation librarian at the University of Washington, to see if their team had any previous experience with VCDs. It turns out he had just published an article with Ashley Blewer, archivist, educator and software engineer titled: “The Forgotten Disc: Synthesis and Recommendations for Viable VCD Preservation(opens in a new tab)” on the Code4Lib journal(opens in a new tab). In their article, they discuss what a VCD is, how it works and how to digitize it.

This article single handedly helped us digitize the requested materials. Because of this experience and collaboration with external colleagues, we were able to update our optical disc digitization workflow and identify VCDs, making this and future materials accessible to researchers.


Watch: Digitizing rare optical media formats with Maile Chung

Maile Chung, postgraduate assistant conservator, shows viewers how they digitize VCDs and other optical media formats

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