The Race to Save Analog Video from the Magnetic Media Crisis

The race to save an incredible amount of imagery, memories, entertainment, art and history from oblivion is on. Vast amounts of video content is becoming unwatchable because old tapes are slowly getting demagnetized.

Images, information and sound is held in tapes by a magnetic field that degrades over time, National Public Radio (NPR) reported. When the field deteriorates completely anything that’s on the tape simply vanishes.

The problem is coming to a head in what preservationists are calling the “Magnetic Media Crisis” because most videotapes are now 20 to 30 years old or older. Most of the tapes were designed to last for 20 to 30 years, but a lot of archivists note that many of them wear out much faster.

As VHS Dies Videos Disappear Forever

The Magnetic Media Crisis is made worse by technological progress. Many varieties of videotape including Unimatic and VHS are no longer manufactured and BetaSP will soon be discontinued.

VCRs and other players are no longer manufactured and nobody is repairing them anymore, Moving Image Preservation of Puget Sound (MPOPS) noted. To make matters videotapes break and the skills to repair them are also disappearing.

“If analog videotapes are not digitized soon, many will be lost forever,” MPOPS webpage states. “At the same time, archivists are being overwhelmed with born-digital content.”

That means a lot of valuable content will disappear because nobody has the time to digitize all of it. Most at risk are private tapes like home movies. Also at risk are corporate records, interviews, some television programs and a lot of news footage.

What you can do?

Organizations like MIPOPS will preserve videos deemed to be of “historical value” but you are probably on your own with those videotapes your dad took when you were a kid. There are many businesses ranging from office supply stores to commercial archives that will digitize content.

There are also groups of volunteers such as the XFR Collective or Transfer Collective of New York City. The collective is a group of hobbyists, artists and activists that tries to preserve at risk audiovisual media such as independent movies or tapes of plays.

Even with their works a lot of content is at risk and even some major works might be in danger. The problem is that a lot of video is in the hands of for-profit companies that have little or no incentive to preserve content for which there is no visible market.

Will it All Disappear?

Digitization is another problem because the cloud can always go down. There is also the threat that digital video on mediums like compact discs will degrade or those storage devices will become obsolescent.

Beyond that archives’ data centers and other storage facilities can be destroyed or damaged through war, disasters, terrorism, etc. There are some alternatives movie companies store films in salt mines and underground vaults.

A Norwegian company called Piql is offering the ultimate data storage solution at the Arctic World Archive in an old coal mine on the Arctic island of Svalbard. Piql records digital data in the form of quick read (QR) code on film using proprietary technology. The film is stored in the vault on Svalbard which is hundreds of miles north of Europe.

Even that solution is not totally safe, the Archives’ neighbor; the Global Seed Vault is being threatening by flooding caused by melting permafrost, Off the Grid News reported. The permafrost is melting because of global warming and threatening the seeds.

That means we might to create multiple records of everything we want to preserve in several different formats and store them in a number of places. It looks as if a lot of memories are about to vanish and there might be little we can do about it.

If you have old videos you care about the message is clear, you must digitize them and perhaps do more now. If not your memories and a lot more might be lost forever.