Since the 1970s people have recorded events on videotape. But can you still watch them? This series of articles, written by video conservator Jamie Lean, explore the issues surrounding the preservation of videotape.
Part 4 - How Do We Save Videotape?
The simple answer is – we make a copy. In time, no matter how well stored or how little it is played, your original videotape will cease to be playable. Whether this is due to deterioration of the magnetic signal or the breakdown or absence of machinery capable of playing your tape, the only way to ensure the survival of the images and sound is to copy them to the best possible format.
If cost was no object it would be possible to transfer the original videotape to 35mm film, a medium that has been around for well over a hundred years. If stored properly, film should be able to be screened in another 200 years or more.
Practical concerns mean that the most likely solution for preserving video is to dub the tape to another videotape. The Archive copies the original tape being preserved to three different formats. After the original has been examined and, if necessary cleaned and repaired, we copy it directly to Betacam SP, Digital Video (DV) and VHS.
The Betacam SP format has been the broadcasting industry standard for almost 20 years, although DigitalBetacam is now taking over. Betacam tape is 1/2” wide and of good quality, while the cassette shell is robust and comes in a heavy plastic case. There are tens of thousands of machines worldwide which should ensure the ability to play back BetaSP tapes for years to come. The Archive’s BetaSP becomes the preservation master and is carefully stored and only accessed for further preservation requirements.
DV tape is much smaller (6mm wide) and uses digital compression to carry all the original information. Because of this, DV is not considered a preservation format. The DV is a dubbing master from which we can make access copies. The VHS is created for viewing, research and cataloguing.
Tape Tips #4
If your prized video has developed mould, it may be possible to clean it enough to transfer it, but you will never be able to remove the mould from the original and it will grow back! Mould typically grows on the top of the tape pack where air and moisture circulate and can be wiped off with various solutions (isopropyl alcohol will do). It is advisable to fast forward and rewind the tape a couple of times in an old machine to shake loose any further debris and maintain tension on the tape. Even so, when you come to copy the tape you may find that you have to stop frequently and clean the player heads.
Saving Tape - Part 5 Where to Now?