Video Tape Preservation – The Final Frontier

The UK’s audio collections have Save Our Sounds.

The BFI recently launched Film is Fragile to support film preservation in the UK.

Yet something is missing from these impassioned calls to preserve audiovisual heritage.

As 2015 draws to a close, there is no comparable public campaign focused on the preservation of videotape.

For James Patterson, from Media Archive for Central England (MACE), this is a ‘real issue and one we need to address as a sector much more widely.’

The UK is unique in this regard. In Australia, for example, the approach to audiovisual preservation appears more integrated (if no less fraught!)

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia make no distinction between audio and video tape in their Deadline 2025: Collections at Risk position paper. It is the endangered status of all magnetic tape collections that are deemed a preservation priority.

umatic-betacam-sp-in-great-bear-studioPreservation Specifics

From experience we know that the preservation of videotape brings with it specific challenges.

It cannot be subsumed into a remit to preserve moving image archives in general.

A key point to consider, outlined by the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Preservation Strategy, is that videotape preservation must account for the mutability of the medium.

‘Film formats have changed little in the last 50 years. Videotape, however, has seen many changes and various formats have come and gone. Videotape formats are in a constant cycle of change, driven largely by the market interests of the manufacturers of the hardware. Any preservation strategy for archival materials must be prepared to embrace a culture of format migration as the commercial market develops and new formats become the industry standard. The only variable is when, not if, collections require to be transferred.’

Machine Provision

It is worth reiterating what public campaigns to preserve audio and film heritage make patently clear: recordings on magnetic tape have a finite lifespan, and the end of that lifespan is alarmingly near.

Many archivists cite a 10-15 year window after which obsolete media must be transferred if recordings are to remain accessible.

In years to come, one of the biggest challenge for the preservation of video tape in particular will be sourcing working machines for all the different formats.

In a recent hardware inventory conducted in the Great Bear studio, we noted that video tape machines outnumbered audio tape machines by 40%. This might be comforting to hear, and rest assured, we are well stocked to manage the range of possible video tape transfers that come our way. Yet this number becomes less impressive when you consider there are over 32 different video tape formats (compared with 16 audio), with very little degree (if any) of interoperability between them.

In comparison with audio tape, and in particular open reel formats which can be played back on a range of different machines, video tape offers significantly less flexibility.

The mechanical circuitry of video tape machines can be immensely complex. Due to the vast market turnover of video formats, these machines often used ‘immature’ technology.

To put it bluntly: proportionally there are less videotape machines, and those machines were not built to last.

Viewed in this light, the status of video tape archives, even compared with audio tape, seem very precarious indeed.

The cultural value of video tapeSony-BVW-75P-maintenance-manual

Why, then, has video tape been persistently overlooked?

Why have we not received calls to ‘save’ video tape, or confront its undeniable ‘fragility’?

Patterson believes that videotape, in comparison to film, has historically been perceived as a ‘broadcast thing,’ or used predominantly in amateur/ domestic settings.

The perception of videotape’s cultural value affects both the acquisition and preservation of the medium.

Patterson explains: ‘Public film archives rely on people depositing things because there is no money for acquisition. If people find rolls of film they have the sense that it might be interesting. Videotape, especially video cassettes, don’t make people think in the same way. If people have a box of VHS cassettes, they are less likely to see it as important. Even at the point when home move making became more democratised, the medium they were using seemed more throwaway.’

The relatively small amounts of video tape collections being deposited in regional film archives is, James believes, a ‘public awareness issue.’ This means they ‘don’t see nearly enough or as much videotape’ as they want. This is a pity because amateur collections may hold the key to building a varied, everyday picture of regional histories uniquely captured by accessible videotape technologies.

single-rack-of-seven-video-tape-machinesDespite comparatively uneven acquisition, ‘most regional archives have significant quantities of videotape.’ In MACE these are ‘mostly broadcast’, deposited by ITV Midlands, on formats such as Beta SP, 1”C, uMatic, VHS and smaller quantities of digital video tape. MACE’s material is migrated to digital files on an order-by-order basis—there is no systematic plan in place to transfer this material or place them in a secure digital repository post-transfer.

Technical capacities

Film and Moving Images archives are regionally dispersed across the UK, and responsibility for caring for these memory resources, on a day-to-day basis, is currently devolved to these locations.

This has implications for the preservation of challenging mediums, such as videotape, which require specialised technical infrastructure and skills, not to mention the people power necessary to manage large amounts of real-time transfers.

There is also the comparative difficulty, until recently, of video digitisation, as Dave Rice explains:

‘Archival communities that focus on formats such as documents, still images, and audio have had longer experience with digitisation workflows, whereas the digitisation of video (hampered by storage sizes, bandwidth, and expenses) has only recently become more approachable. While digitisation practices for documents, still images, and audio include more community consensus regarding best practices and specifications, there is much greater technical diversity regarding the workflows, specifications, and even objectives for digitising archival video.’

This point was echoed by Megan McCooley, moving image archivist at the Yorkshire Film Archive. She told me that preserving film stock is relatively manageable through careful control of storage environments, but preserving video is more challenging because of the lack of firm ‘protocols in place’ to guide best practices. It is not the case that videotape digitisation is simply ‘off the radar’ and not seen as an issue among moving image archivists. Rather the complexity of the process makes systematic video digitisation ‘harder for regional archives to undertake’ because they are smaller, lack specialised technical video facilities, and are often dependent on project-based funding. Patterson also commented that within regional archives there is a ‘technological knowledge gap’ when it comes to videotape.

Are the times a-changing?

There is the sense, from talking to Megan and James, that attention is beginning to turn to video preservation, but until now other projects have taken precedence.  This is the case for the BFI’s national Unlocking Film Heritage project where the main stipulation for digitisation funding is that nominated titles must originate on film.

Yet the BFI, as strategic leader in the field of moving images heritage, is currently planning a consultation on what needs to happen after the end of Digitisation Fund Phase Three: Unlocking Film Heritage 2013-2017.

For James there is no question that there is a ‘serious case that needs to made for videotape.’

Given the complex technological and cultural issues shaping the fate of videotape, it is clear there is no time to waste.

*** Many thanks to James Patterson from MACE and Megan McCooley at Yorkshire Film Archive for sharing their perspectives for this article***

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