Before the advent of DVDs and Blueray, we had VHS. The days when we had to rewind and forward the tape, and make sure the film wouldn’t get stuck in the VCR. You may think VHS is becoming obsolete, but there are archivists like Mary Kidd and her colleagues who are trying to save the format.
They meet together once a week in order to digitize tapes. Their group includes archivists and preservationists called XFR Collective (Transfer Collective) and most of them work professionally while some are volunteers. They have vector scopes, oscilloscopes, tape decks and wave-forms that will ensure a transfer from analog to digital is good quality.
Preserving the memories
This is a time sensitive project, and tapes won’t last much longer than twenty years. So how do magnetic tapes work? First of all, the sounds and images are magnetized onto strips of tape. However, the tape will lose its magnetic properties over time. This is referred to as the “Magnetic Media Crisis”, which means that audiovisual objects could be lost forever.
Howard Lukk, the director of standards at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers says that once the magnetic field has been imprinted into a tape that has faded too much, you will not be able to recover it from the tape after a long time. Due to advances in technology, many VHS tapes were recorded in the 80’s and 90’s, so they will soon become unwatchable regardless of their condition.
This process also includes a significant amount of troubleshooting. For each transfer, the group has to play the whole tape while they are watching it. XFR Collective works together to look for tapes they feel are worth saving. This includes videos from communities (such as immigrants or activists) that are under-represented in the archives of institutions that archivists work at.
The consequences of digitizing VHS
However, it is important to note that digitizing these tapes does not mean they will last forever. According to Lukk, some film preservationists believe we should be looking back to the days where we didn’t have magnetic media for stable preservation. Heritage organizations have no choice but to digitize magnetic media for preservation. If they don’t, this could mean possibly destroying historical records.
Furthermore, the Mipops (or moving image preservation of puget sound) website explains that archivists are also overwhelmed with born digital content. Mipops is dedicated to helping heritage institutions digitize videotapes appraised as historical value. They also provide tools and advice in order to preserve video recordings, and make them accessible to the public.
Why is it becoming obsolete?
In addition, formatting also contributes to video cassettes becoming obsolete. For example, video cassettes are no longer manufactured, and BetaSP will also be discontinued. We need the machines that play these formats in order to make preservation copies, however, they are becoming skills. The skills that are needed to repair and maintain them are also rare to find.
XFR collective works with grassroots organizations and artists in order to educate them on how to use audiovisual archival principles in order to support their work. They also seek other partners such as curators and anyone who is interested in hosting XFR-related presentations which will benefit the community.
This group devotes their time not only to help people, but to preserve history as well.