Why Time is Running Out For Your Videotapes

Our Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video walks you through how to manage and preserve digital video you are creating now. But how should we deal with all the videos recorded on tapes years ago?

Until about 5 years ago, when tapeless camcorders became the norm, video was almost always recorded on videotape. In the WITNESS Media Archive collection, we have human rights footage dating from 1992, recorded on a wide range of videotape formats like Hi8, VHS, Betacam, minDV, and DVCam.

The content on these tapes is all at risk of being lost. This is in part because the tapes physically deteriorate over time (the average lifespan for a Sony manufactured tape, for example, is 15 to 30 years). But more than physical deterioration, what makes these tapes vulnerable is that their formats are obsolete, and it is increasingly difficult to find and maintain working machines that can play them.

The accepted solution for saving the content on these tapes is to digitize or re-format to digital files. Since manufacturers no longer produce playback machines and spare parts, however, there is a finite number of functioning videotape decks left in the world that can be used to perform the transfers. There are also fewer and fewer people with the expertise to repair and maintain the machines.


Above, a magnetic head for playing Umatic tapes. Once all the existing heads for a certain format break, wear out, or disappear, all the videos in that format will become unplayable, no matter what condition the tapes are in.

As I heard at the International Sound and Audiovisual Archives Conference this month, large archives and commercial vendors around the world are very actively seeking out and stockpiling the remaining machines and parts so that they can re-format as much of their important audiovisual collections as they can before supplies run out. This is important, and will likely ensure that larger collections of magnetic media can be preserved.

But what about smaller organizations like us, or even individual activists, who have valuable content stored on videotape that will not be acquired by major institutions, and that do not have the budget to cover per-hour vendor fees?

Fortunately there is an emerging ground-up movement to support digitization of smaller collections, epitomized by projects like the New Museum’s brilliant XFR STN exhibition last summer in New York City.  XFR STN (pronounced “transfer station”) was an in-house preservation-lab-as-exhibition that provided free transfer services for artist-produced moving image and born-digital content.  Anyone could book a 3-hour appointment with a preservation technician, who would transfer one or two tapes to digital files, upload them to Internet Archive for storage and access, and educate participants and visitors about the process.

Kristin explains a basic transfer station setup, which includes playback decks, time-base corrector, a-d converter, waveform monitor, vectorscope, video monitor, capture card, and a computer with editing software.

Kristin explains a basic transfer station setup, which includes playback decks, time-base corrector, a-d converter, waveform monitor, vectorscope, video monitor, capture card, and a computer with editing software.

This past summer, WITNESS archivists were fortunate to have a session with technician/archivist Kristin MacDonough. During our appointment we transferred these two raw Hi-8 videos from the WITNESS collection with her guidance:
Interview with Graham Blewitt, Deputy Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

World Vision International visit (Gulu) / Gusco children’s center, sister Rachele / Army barracks in Gulu, Uganda (February 15, 1999).

While the exhibition itself was only temporary, it served to demystify the transfer setup and process, and successfully made the argument that building cooperative transfer stations for small organizations and individuals is an affordable and realistic approach to our digitization problem.

Given the scarcity of equipment and limited budgets for preservation reformatting, shared do-it-yourself stations are likely the most viable solutions for ensuring that human rights documentation recorded on videotape by individual activists and organizations like ours will remain accessible in the future.

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