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8-Tracks and Betamax: Obsolete and Endangered Media from the Museum Archives

by Geoff Edwards

3/4/2016

Mary R. Schiff Library and Archives , technology , digital preservation , archives , digital media

We’re all used to the inexorable march of technology – you can’t blink without your smart phone being superseded by a newer model.  But, to be fair, this has been the case ever since some entrepreneurial caveman held a press launch for his swanky new range of bronze tools, leaving the traditionalists grumbling that they’d be sticking with stone.

Technological innovation has its upside, of course. Once upon a time computers were the size of houses and had the processing power of a Tickle Me Elmo; now we carry them in our pockets and have the ability to watch funny animal videos whenever and wherever we want. Progress is a wonderful thing.

But what about those obsolete and abandoned technologies, like the VHS video tape, for instance? If you decide it’s time to upgrade your video version of – oh, let’s say “Bad Boys 2” – from VHS to Blu-Ray, that’s pretty straightforward. But what happens when your VHS tape is a copy of the 1990 Art Academy of Cincinnati graduation ceremony. You won’t find that on Amazon.

Rescuing data from obsolete audio and video formats, not to mention computer media, is a problem that archivists are facing worldwide. And it’s not just that the fact that the hardware to play back these formats is increasingly hard to find; in many cases, the tapes and disks themselves have a limited lifespan. For example, recordable CDs and DVDs are particularly prone to failure within a matter of years, and can’t be relied on for the long-term storage of important data.

In the archives here at the Art Museum, we have a fairly representative collection of storage media that are either already obsolete, such as 8-track audio cartridges and Betamax video tapes, or on the critically endangered list, e.g. VHS tapes and audio cassettes. How are we going about making sure that these often unique records of Museum history remain accessible for future generations?

Making a copy is the most important first step, whether that’s digitizing analog media or copying files from aging CDs, DVDs, floppy disks, etc. Sounds simple, right? Well, whilst it’s fairly easy to get hold of equipment to play back, say, VHS tapes or audio cassettes, or to read 3.25 inch floppy disks, it’s far harder to find players for Betamax video tapes, or to find a computer that can read 5 inch floppy disks. Even assuming you do find some way of reading those antiquated floppy disks, do you actually have software that will open the files you discover? And, of course, once you’ve successfully backed-up every last bit of data and digitized every video tape, where do you store all those gigabytes – or more likely terabytes – of data? Digital storage is getting cheaper, but it’s not that cheap.

Thankfully, most of us don’t have a media collection of such variety or extent to tackle, but if you do have video tapes of your child’s first steps or audio tapes of your ‘80s garage band you want to preserve, do it soon – these tapes won’t last forever. It’s relatively easy to do it yourself with a little technical know-how, but there are also many companies that will do it for you.

Finally, one additional piece of advice for anyone concerned about protecting their digital files, whether photos, videos, or the draft of your Pulitzer-winning novel – backup, backup, backup. Whether it’s to the cloud, to external hard-drives, or you even printing it all out, you can never have too many copies…just in case. You never know when a sippy cup of juice is going to be poured into your laptop by an over-excited toddler, or when you’ll inexplicably click Yes in response to the question “Are you sure you want to permanently delete these files?” when you clearly meant No – these are just examples, by the way, not actual things that have happened to me…honestly.