Historical Reminiscents Podcast EP 66: Don’t Throw Out That VCR

Stack of VHS tapes on left of image, right reads Episode 66 Don't Throw Our That VCR

In today’s episode I’m talking about digitization of VHS tapes, digital preservation, and my recent trials and tribulations of using VCRs. I chat about the labour intensive work behind digitization and the challenges of video preservation. 

Mentioned in this episode:
-Samantha Thompson, “Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything?
-National Archives, Video Guidance: Playback and Digitization of Materials

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

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All the VHS Tapes

VHS-tapesRecently I’ve been working with a lot of audio-visual media and trying to begin to get a handle on what older audio and video footage we have in the archive that is in need of being migrated. Last month it was announced that the last company still making VCRs is going to cease production of them adding VHS tapes to the list of media that will become harder to find a player for.  Videocassettes (in all their permutations) have long been an outdated medium but there are still plenty of individuals and organizations who have a slew of content saved on them that hasn’t been migrated to DVD or a digital medium.

A lot of the audio-visual content I’ve been working with is from Shingwauk reunions between 1981 to 2006.  Much of this content is irreplaceable, it includes footage of survivors speaking about their residential school experience and documents the early residential school survivor movement from the survivor perspective.  At this point it looks like a fairly high percentage of the footage has already been migrated in some form, however the migrated footage is at times labelled differently than the original tapes in any way so it’s a bit of a puzzle connecting all of the versions of the recordings.  I’m also working to connect this audio-visual material to the broader archival collections surrounding the Shingwauk reunions as the footage compliments photographic and textual records that have already been processed relating to the events.

A couple of thoughts about working with VHS tapes and outdated audio-visual media more broadly.  How you label your content is important.  Labeling videos tape 1, tape, 2 etc with no other contextual information is not a good way to approach things.  Including approximate dates, individuals in the video, and event details can be hugely helpful to archivists and others going back through this content decades later.  One of my recent favourite finds is a tape labelled “Jerry Maguire.”  To my surprise this was not a VHS copy of the 1990s movie by the same name, rather it was an interview with an individual who happened to be named Jerry Maguire from the 1980s.  Good thing we checked the content before tossing that tape.

Having a player that plays the media you’re working with is hugely important.  This is partially due to the labeling point I just mentioned.  It can at times be impossible to tell if something is worth saving just be reading a hastily scrawled notes on the case – especially if there’s a chance the case doesn’t match the actual recording.  Having a player is also essential for any migration you might want to do.  I would also suggest looking into best practices for labeling/naming subsequent versions of the video footage.  Documenting how and when the material was transferred can be extremely valuable for others who come across the transferred footage years later.

Prioritize migration and digitization.  Regardless of if you are going the migration in house or externally there are substantial time and fiscal costs associated with the process.  It may not be possible (or desirable) to digitize everything initially.  Priorities will vary from organization to organization but should take into consideration the fragility and stability of the original medium, the historical value of the content, and the feasibility of digitization based on resources.  At the moment migrating VHS and cassette content is manageable by many organizations but finding players and expertise to migrate reel film, beta tapes, mini-discs, and other obsolete media might be more challenging.

What are you experiences dealing with older audio-visual media?  Do you have examples of challenging or successful migration projects?