Before the rise of optical discs (CDs and DVDs) and hard drives, magnetic media formats such as cassettes, VHS or Betamax tapes and floppy disks were the most common way to store audio, video or digital data. However, this format is rapidly deteriorating, leading to the inevitable loss of what they contain.
Unlike film, which typically presents obvious signs of deterioration such as vinegar syndrome – marked by a distinct and (you guessed it) vinegary smell – or a change in visual appearance, magnetic media deterioration is often only evident when the media is accessed via a stereo, computer, VHS player or similar playback device. These devices, however, are becoming increasingly rare. The potential loss of otherwise perfectly preserved data because of a lack of playback devices is known as obsolescence.
This guide is based on the conservation practices we employ at ACMI and is intended to help you preserve your own magnetic media home collection to ensure prolonged accessibility for future generations, such as the following gem from the ACMI Collection.
What is Magnetic Media?
Magnetic Media refers to any data recording format where information is recorded and retrieved from a medium that’s coated with particles that react to magnetism, such as metallic oxide. When you (used to) record Savage Garden’s ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ from the radio onto a cassette, these particles are magnetised and realign to store Darren Hayes’ sultry tones. A playback device (in this case, a stereo) then reads the particles and converts it back so sound. Forms of this media have been around since the 1930s, but audio cassettes, video tapes and floppy discs are like formats you are most likely to encounter.
With a few exceptions, magnetic media formats generally consist of five main parts:
- The media’s enclosure (grey in the above image), which is usually a plastic, sometimes with metal components, and holds the magnetic tape and any other components required to access the tape’s data.
- The magnetic strip (in orange) itself, which is housed within the enclosure and holds the data.
- The guard (in blue), a piece of spring-loaded plastic or metal on the enclosure. This protects an exposed area of the magnetic strip and is moved by the playback device to read or write data. Note that some mediums, such as Cassettes, lacks a guard.
- The case, a cardboard, paper or plastic sleeve that holds the entire tape or floppy.
- The playback device, any tool – a stereo, VHS or Betamax player or computer with a disc drive – used to access the data within magnetic media.
At ACMI, we approach the preserving magnetic media in three fundamental ways: proper storage and handling, detailed documentation, and data migration.
Handling Magnetic Media
Improper storage or handling of magnetic media can lead to damage of the magnetic strip, potentially causing loss of data. Similarly, a damaged enclosure may also impede data accessibility when placed in a playback device.
When handling any media, magnetic or otherwise, work with clean, dry hands and in a clean environment. Handle only the enclosure and not the guard, even though the temptation is to continually flip it and have it spring back in place (and trust us, it is fun). In addition, care should be taken around the case or any paper labels glued on the enclosure, especially if they are ripped or contain any relevant information.
Be kind, please rewind!
Prior to storage, VHS, Betamax and cassette tapes should be wound to their beginning using a playback device. Doing this will tightly pack the magnetic tape with the appropriate tension, which can prevent tape distortion and exposure to dust.
Any case that comes with the media, assuming it’s in good condition, can be kept with the enclosure. Damaged cases can introduce dust that can scratch the strip, introduce mould and may collect inside playback device, damaging it too. In this instance, it may be worth scanning the damaged case if it contains any pertinent information. If possible, transfer the tape to a plastic hinged case made of polypropylene, as they are sturdier and are made of archival-quality materials, which are specially formulated to degrade slower.
As anyone who has accidentally taped over home movie footage of a wedding with a footy game can attest, overwriting data is a real risk with irreversible consequences. To this end, some magnetic media formats come with a physical copy-protection feature, usually in the form of a button, switch or removable tab, located somewhere on the enclosure. When switched on, these prevent the overwriting of a tape’s contents by a playback device. As there are numerous types of magnetic media, each with its own copy-protection features, more detailed information about these can be found here. Note that in some formats, enabling copy-protection may be permanent as it requires the breaking off of a plastic tab on the enclosure.
Storing Magnetic Media
Much like a conservative vampire, magnetic media loves being in the dark, hates change and abhors bad analogies. Magnetic media is best stored in an environment with no natural light and few fluctuations in temperature and humidity. An uninsulated attic or shed, for instance, may not be ideal due to uncontrollable environmental changes. Generally, the more barriers between your collection and any significant areas of water, heat, cold or humidity (the outside, a bathroom, a heating or cooling unit) the better.
A centrally-located closet in your house might be a good home storage location. The items should be stored off the floor to lower the risk of damage from a flood or pests. Since magnetism is used to store data on the tape, prolonged exposure to outside sources of magnetisation can have adverse effects. To avoid this, move any strong magnets or objects that generate magnetic fields like loudspeakers. Tapes should be stored vertically to cut down on the risk of warping or cracking.
If the enclosure or its case are mouldy, or have loose parts like screws, store the tape and case in a ziplock bag. This prevents the mould spores from spreading to other collection items (and your lungs!) or keeps loose parts together. This is only a temporary measure, however, as mouldy tapes will require cleaning prior to placing in a playback machine.
Knowing what you have is as important as practicing good storage and handling, especially when dealing with a large number of objects – we should know; ACMI has tens of thousands of tapes!
Creating a comprehensive inventory of your collection gives you the ability to quickly search for a specific object, reorder data and pass this knowledge onto any interested parties. Even the simple form of inventory – an item count – can be very useful information. If you know your collection, for example, contains 48 VHS tapes, 72 cassettes and 14 floppy discs, one can easily figure out if something is missing by simply counting.
Adding even more detail like a title and description of each object’s contents, its location or year of creation can be invaluable in quickly determining priorities for digitisation, arranging objects based on theme or tracking possible deterioration patterns.
Spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets are readily available and ideal for creating your own inventory. Here’s an inventory template we created that you might find helpful to get you started.
To Number or Not to Number
Much like the Dewey Decimal system in a library, giving each item a unique identifier makes them easier to track. Tapes, after all, tend to look the same after a while. This system can be as simple as a numeric sequence (001, 002, 003 etc) or as complicated as denoting the media type on the tracking number (VHS_001, CAS_002, BMX_003 etc).
Whatever numbering system you choose, it is important that this number is both recorded in your inventory as well as physically attached to the item or its case. Use archival-quality labelling materials like acid-free paper and archival pens, which are generally more stable and able to resist change over time. Avoid placing a label directly on the object itself, as this may damage the enclosure or affect playback. If the object is too small or lacks a case, write the number onto a bag of archival-quality plastic like polypropylene and place the object inside. Writing the number onto a paper or cloth tape label and tying it onto the object, if practical, is also an option. Whatever your solution, it is important to remain consistent in your numbering and document the logic behind the system you chose, to prevent confusion in the future.
Inventories can be daunting, especially in the beginning. Start simple and first view items as a single collection instead of a pile of separate items. For instance, you can divide your collection into different groups based on criteria like time-period, content or format. Grouping items also means you can easily see how much work it will take to inventory the items to a level of detail you prefer.
Decisions made about your inventory can also be flexible and improved in the future. Don’t lock yourself into finding the ‘perfect’ system before documenting or digitising your first item only to realise that it may not work for the entire collection. The best system is what is logical, what works for your level of commitment to your collection and one that is understandable and will function independently of you in the future.
Digitising Tapes and Backups
Magnetic media, even under the best storage conditions, will inevitably become inaccessible regardless of its deterioration status due to obsolescence of its playback devices. The best way to ensure prolonged accessibility is by migrating the data from the magnetic media onto more contemporary (and therefore more accessible) formats. Migration of this data onto a digital format is (predictably) called digitisation. The good news is that there are plenty of companies that offer this service, many of which can be found online.
While service options may differ, a good rule of thumb is to ask for a digital file on a USB or hard drive and avoid moving them onto DVDs. There are a host of reasons for this: First, obsolescence rears its head again, as DVD and DVD players are becoming less common due to the rise of streaming platforms. Additionally, a DVD has a limited and relatively small data capacity, may only work on certain playback machines and can’t be copied as easily as a digital file. In fact, with a digital file, you can create your own DVDs as well as make as many digital copies as you need.
Once you have a digital file, it is good to follow the 3-2-1 Backup Rule to lower the chance that it may accidentally deleted or corrupted:
- Have at least 3 copies of the digital file
- Store these backups on at least 2 different types of formats (e.g. a portable hard drive, a USB, on a computer, or cloud storage)
- Store at least 1 backup in a geographically separated location (e.g. a hard drive at a relative’s house).
It’s also worth noting that the process of preservation is cyclical. Obsolescence will eventually affect the hard drive or USB with the digital file, as it now does with magnetic media, so it will be worth occasionally updating these digital files to newer storage formats.
A few last words
We all know that feeling of being overwhelmed when faced with a large, seemingly insurmountable, project. Just think of the memories you’ll rediscover, the new ones you’ll make and the satisfaction you’ll feel knowing that the next generation can appreciate the life you’ve documented. Well, let’s be honest, they’re probably going to make fun of your tragic haircut, music taste and fashion choices, but it’s not their fault they lack taste.