How much time is left?

It’s a question I get asked sometimes, but perhaps not often enough.  How much life is left in my audiovisual collection?  How much time do I really have to migrate my materials?  Well, that depends on the formats, but generally speaking the experts agree, in about 20 years support for all video (and most audio) tape-based formats will disappear completely.

I’m not trying to be a doomsday prophet here, but the facts are that proprietary machines that once recorded beautiful content in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s are no longer reparable and are wearing out fast.  Combine that with the reality that magnetic tape formats only have about a 30 year shelf life.  Film on the other hand, you’ve got time, because unlike magnetic tape, film does not rely on proprietary playback equipment – all you really need is a lens and a light source.

This past year at Flume Media was the first year that instead of adding more formats, we began phasing formats out.  The first casualty was 1/2″ Open Reel video (EIAJ).  When it was introduced in the late 60’s, 1/2″ EIAJ was very practical format given that most people were still relying on film.  The format gave instant playback and editing functions and was used extensively.  But with the lack of available parts, these machines are all but obsolete.

Another factor affecting the support of magnetic tape formats is that the expertise to work on these machines is also fading.  Sadly this past year, we lost a trusted broadcast engineer and a dear friend who was our go-to for maintaining these legacy formats.  While parts and manuals can sometimes be scavenged, living knowledge can disappear so quickly.

I have written previously about prioritizing formats for preservation – you can read that again here.  I encourage organizations to develop a migration plan taking into account their priority items and the support available for the various formats in their collection.  If you’d like to speak more about developing such a plan, feel free to contact us.

Audio tape formats