Digitising audio-visual records – magnetic media

One of the greatest challenges for archives is caring for records that are in one of many audio-visual formats. 

Here at QSA we have video and audio records dating from around the 60s through to the late 90s on magnetic tape. So, things like promotional and educational videos, interviews and recordings and even soundtracks as elements from motion picture films, and copies of old broadcasts.

We certainly have quite a diverse range of format types – which is pretty impressive if we do say so ourselves – and what’s really cool is that our collection essentially traces the development and use of tape-based technologies by Queensland governments since it was introduced to when it became… well, obsolete.

So, what’s the problem with AV and preservation? Well, there are two main threats to the preservation and accessibility of these unique formats. 

Firstly, their composition, that is what and how they are made. Depending on their age and how they have been stored, handled and cared for in the past they can suffer from what we call ‘sticky shed syndrome’.  This can lead to deterioration of the tape and reels fusing into one sticky fused mass at its worst. Pretty hard to see or hear what’s on the tape when that happens.

The second is probably a bit more familiar to you and it affects them no matter what their condition. It’s also probably more pressing. You guessed it – technological obsolescence. Why is this a problem? Well, we have either already run out or are very soon about to run out of machines to play them on.

So, although most of our tapes will remain in good playable condition for decades to come, we won’t be able to get hold of any machines to read them or digitise them from. Some forecast by 2025 these formats will be completely obsolete just for this reason alone. 

Unlike film (negatives, microfilm, motion picture film) we can’t get any information from a cassette or reel of magnetic tape just by magnifying and looking at it. Each format needs its companion machine to play it – e.g. you can’t play a Betamax cassette on a VHS player.

Alas, no one has invented a universal mag media reader yet, but we live in hope.

Obviously, we don’t want to lose access to what we have, and are racing against the clock to preserve and digitise what we do have, so over the past 6 or 7 years we have been gradually digitising our most at-risk AV. 

This year we put through another 300+ magnetic tapes for digitisation.  Its expensive.  It’s time consuming. And it needs specialist external vendors with working well-maintained machines, all the right digitisation gear and who know how to handle and treat degraded tapes.

Most/all magnetic media is vulnerable to deterioration and technological obsolescence, and some more than others.

You may recognise some of the magnetic formats in the picture above.  Maybe you have records in your organisation that look something like these or even at home, or up to this point have always been a bit of a mystery. Hint: if the tape has an opaque rusty brown look to it, it is probably mag. And if you do have anything like this in your office or somewhere in storage, you can always contact us to help identify and get advice on how to care for it.

Now, 10 points for the first person who correctly identifies each of the formats in the photo!

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