In one of his final posts before heading West to the Computer History Museum, David Braught sounds the alarm for legacy media holders to digitize their collections while they still can.
Chances are you’re here because either you found Crawford Media Service’s website or you follow Crawford on social media. That being the case, I’m going to make a leap of faith and assume you have a library of legacy media and are aware that those formats have degraded (and will continue to do so). Obstacles such as binder hydrolysis (also known as sticky shed syndrome), vinegar syndrome, and even mold make more and more content impractical to digitize with each passing year.
But notice I said “impractical.” Not “impossible.” So far, practically every tape, film, or disc that comes to Crawford for migration gets digitized, even the formats famed for their playback issues (like quad or U-matic). I think it’s safe to say Crawford has been unable to digitize less than one out of a thousand assets. We can treat many of the effects of aging and, while it’s certainly more expensive and time consuming to digitize a collection of sticky, mold-ridden ¼” tapes than it is to crank through a series of pristine Betacams, with time and money it’s doable. The physical condition of the media, while it continues to be a growing threat, takes a back seat to an even more urgent crisis.
The more frightening impediment on the path to audiovisual digitization is the impending obsolescence of the physical assets, brought on by dwindling-to-nonexistent support for legacy media playback equipment. Just this year Sony announced the discontinuation of sales for ½” VTRs and camcorders. By 2023 they will no longer devote any resources towards HDCam or Betacam formats, and those are the newest formats with the best support!
The situation becomes even bleaker when analyzing older formats: U-matics and 1” tapes are already not supported. When those VTRs wear out they need to go through expensive refurbishing processes. VHS decks are scarce, and those you can buy new are prosumer-grade VHS/DVD combo players. Same goes for 8mm tapes: none of the professional decks are available anymore. At best you might be able to find a consumer-grade Digital8 deck with backwards compatibility. Even relatively recent audio formats like DAT and DA-88 tapes have no support and need to become a priority for preservation.
Panasonic tape formats have arguably even worse levels of support than Sony at this point. M2 is long done, D3 resources are scarce, and DVC Pro and D5 tapes are no longer in production. By 2020 you may not be able to find any Panasonic parts.
Eventually, and at an accelerating pace, all these formats will reach 2” quad levels of obsolescence, which ought to give you chills. I’m not sure exactly how many quad decks are still in operation, but I do know only one or two companies in the country rebuild the heads. With so few people left to service the equipment, the cost to digitize is beginning to accelerate. Quad heads typically last about 500 hours (if you’re lucky they’ll get close to 1,000). When a head wears out, you have no choice but to send it out to be rebuilt, which currently costs close to $6,000. Worse yet than the cost of digitization is the cost of doing nothing; when those companies close shop, or can no longer support the format, the window slams shut on any opportunity to migrate quad tapes, and the same goes for other formats. At that point…well, I just hope you’ve digitized as much as possible before that happens.
There’s a reason Crawford has over 800 VTRs and ATRs stored in our facility. There’s a reason we employ a staff of brilliant engineers with decades of experience with analog and digital tape formats. These parts and machines are as scarce as the people with the knowledge to service them. With Crawford’s infrastructure in place we can keep tape platforms running at peak efficiency as affordably as possible. We continue to stockpile equipment but the time when we will no longer be able to reproduce a given format is not measured in calendar years. It’s measured in thousands of tape hours. When the tape heads we have can no longer be rebuilt then the format is done. This is true not just for Crawford, but across the industry.
Those who get their content into the queue first are the ones who will preserve their content. No one can say when the world will run out of heads, but those who wait too long to digitize will find that they have missed the party. Don’t allow your collection to become nothing more than physical artifacts of a bygone era. Join us in sounding the alarm. Maybe together we can raise the level of rhetoric across the archive community concerning the very real crisis of format obsolescence. Let’s make it front of mind for executives who are the drivers of the much needed funding.