Preserving Ephemera: Home Movies & Educational Video

Yesterday was Home Movie Day, and I missed it. I was catching up on some blog reading today and found this post about it at Stay Free! Daily, which directed me to a longer article that appeared in the last issue of Stay Free! magazine.

The idea behind Home Movie Day is to embrace the value of home movies, as emphemeral pieces of history and cultural artifacts. On the day itself, film archivists facilitate the delicate showing of home movies so that the films themselves are not damaged by the projector.

Archivists also want to encourage owners of home movies to take good care of and protect their film orginals, while making video copies for viewing. They also want owners to realize that the video copies are not forever, and may not even last as long as the original film.

At work I have small, but sizeable, archive of vintage videotape that was shot for foreign language courses in the 1970s and 1980s. Much of it is on the Umatic format, a professional precursor to Betamax, but still in production. Some of the rest is on VHS.

Depending on the age and birthdate of the tape, some of it is degrading fast. …

Strangely, some older tapes play better than more recent tapes. One reason is that in the 1980s a lot of tape manufacturers used a new kind of binder which holds the magnetic oxide particles to the tape. This binder proved to be less robust and long-lasting than prior or subsequent formulations, and so those tapes have degraded more dramatically.

Since I didn’t produce most of these tapes, and because the folks who did didn’t leave behind any documentation I’m aware of, I really don’t know what is valuable and what isn’t.

I’m making the general assumption that nearly everything has some value, and then trying to prioritize what gets preserved and archived.

There are not a lot of cost-effective preservation options available to us. Most people assume that DVD is the most obvious option. Now, it’s true that archiving to DVD is now inexpensive, since we can use DVD recorders with media that costs less than $1.00. However, nobody is sure how long DVD-R media will really last, and DVD-R is not a good media to use if you ever want to reuse or edit the video. Yes, you can do it, but there is quality loss that you may not want to suffer.

So, what we’ve doing is dubbing over these old tapes to archive-quality digital videotape, DVCam, to be specific. There are higher-quality digital video formats out there, but as a small educational video facility we can’t afford the equipment, nor can we afford the tape.

As it is, we can only afford so much DVCam tape, since it runs about $18 per hour. That’s much more expensive than camcorder miniDV tapes, which cost about $4 per hour, but they’re also more fragile and not designed for archive purposes.

Because we can dub to muliple recorders at once, we do make DVD-Rs along with the DVCams, since they’re easy to duplicate and also it’s much easier to find a DVD player than a professional DVCam VCR.

At $18 we have to spread our archiving out over time, so that we can afford the tape. And in the process we’re also tapping faculty from various departments to help us determine what the content is, and what priority it should have in being archived, since, ostensible, it’s slowly degrading while it waits.

This all just highlights the fragility of our media records. Magnetic tape is very fragile, and yet has been the medium of choice for video for the last thirty years, becoming the most prevalent during the 90s when video went digital. Much of our audio record is also on tape, especially master tapes from musical recordings.

Digitizing these recordings buys us some years, but nobody knows how many. Digital means that exact duplicates are easier to make — nevertheless, somebody has to make them. A digital tape stored away in a closet or warehouse will degrade, just like the old Umatic tapes are doing today.

And the choice of archive format makes difference, too. CDs are pretty good, but now acknowledged to be sonically inferior to the analog master tapes they’re made from. And DVDs are not even close to the quality of 35mm film.

Today’s multi-track digital recordings and high-definition video recordings rival those analog formats for quality, but the question remains: will the stuff they’re on be around 50 years from now? And if so, will we still be able to retrieve it?