Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable As Archivists Work To Save Them

Most videotapes were recorded in the 1980s and ’90s, when video cameras first became widely available to Americans. Most of those VHS cassettes have become unwatchable, and others are quickly dying, too. Research suggests that tapes like this aren’t going to live beyond 15 to 20 years. NPR has a story about a group of archivists and preservationists who are increasingly scrambling through racks of tape decks, oscilloscopes, vector scopes and wave-form monitors to ensure a quality transfer from analog to digital. From the article: Here’s how magnetic tapes work: Sounds and images are magnetized onto strips of tape, using the same principle as when you rub a piece of metal with a magnet and it retains that magnetism. But when you take the magnet away, the piece of metal slowly loses its magnetism — and in the same way, the tape slowly loses its magnetic properties. “Once that magnetic field that’s been imprinted into that tape has kind of faded too much, you won’t be able to recover it back off the tape after a long period of time,” says Howard Lukk, director of standards at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Lukk estimates there are billions of tapes sitting around. There are plenty of services out there to digitize tapes — local stores, online services, even public libraries and universities. Some services are free; some cost a lot of money. The thing is, many people don’t realize their tapes are degrading. And some who do know — even members of the XFR Collective (the aforementioned group), like Mary Kidd — haven’t even gotten around to their own tapes. Digitizing also takes a lot of troubleshooting. Each transfer the Collective does requires them to play the entire tape through while they sit there and watch it.


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