Monday, October 22, 2007

Saving old tapes and films

Earlier this month in his My World of Dreams column in the Harrison Press, Bill Baird posed some questions to me. Most of them center on assuring that his old films and tapes will be usable in this digital environment and for many years to come. These questions may seem simple but Bill actually has touched on one of the biggest conundrums resulting from this new digital age of “continuous technology improvement.”

Simply put, Bill asked about transferring his library of films and tapes to media that will be “playable” in the future. This same question has been the topic of great concern on a national and even international level for years. Here in the United States at the Library of Congress and the National Archives, archivists and librarians are huddling with technicians to decide how to preserve the collection of thousands of hours of films, tapes, discs and other media for the future. Unlike paper, which can be saved and read as long as it exists, the myriad formats of film, tape and digital media do degrade over time and all require the existence of a player.

Audio and Video tapes, which are basically long ribbons of plastic covered with rust, are prone to degrade as the glue breaks down and the “rust” falls off. This can happen over as few as ten years. Film, even when it is kept in a cool dry environment, also degrades. We don’t yet know how long CDs and DVDs will last.

It is not practical to keep a “player” for all the various formats that have been and will be created in the future. For example, if you have been to the store recently, you may have noticed that VHS machines are as scarce as buggy whips. They are no longer manufactured. If you have a collection of VHS tapes, what do you do when your machine dies? This is precisely the crux of Bill’s question and our friends in Washington, DC.

Bill noted that he has a library of films and tapes in a variety of formats, i.e. 8mm, super 8mm film, VHS, 8mm and Hi 8 mm tape. The first thing he should do is get them copied into some sort of digital form. Right now the best and most inexpensive option is to get a DVD recorder. While we don’t know the lifespan of the DVD media, at least it is a digital medium allowing for copying to another digital medium in the future without any quality loss. There are DVD recorders on the market with a VHS deck built in making the VHS to DVD copying easy.

The films pose a different and more complex problem. You can’t just project them on a screen and use a video camera to record them. The quality of the images will be unacceptable since the camera can’t capture the film image well and the 8mm “frame rate”, i.e. the number of frames that are projected on the screen each second, is non-compatible with the frame rate of the DVD or tape. So making copies at home could be a challenge without the investment of some pricy technology. An option is to have the films made into digital files by a professional. This costs an average of 10 cents per foot, so this can get expensive. There are several companies that offer this. Two examples are: and . I have NOT used either of these services, so I can not recommend them.

Once the files are created, they can be stored on DVD or even kept on a hard drive. The latter requires regular back up however.

Bill also asked about getting parts for his old 8mm and Super 8 mm projectors. This is actually not too hard. There are several companies on the Internet that have stocked up on parts. EBay is also a great place to find used VHS and High 8 video players. If you have a working player for the various tape formats, they can be easily copied on to DVD.

Gone are the days when technology was backward compatible. When color TV came out it did not render your black and white model unusable. In ancient times when vinyl records morphed from mono to stereo, you could still play them on the old machine. Unfortunately, too often our new technology changes faster and faster and does not concern itself with the impact of obsolescence and the archiving of media. This may be a steep price to pay for progress.

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