VHS Tapes: How Archivists Are Working To Save Them : All Tech Considered With VHS tapes degrading, most Americans' home videos from the '80s and '90s won't be viewable in a decade. But there's a grassroots movement to preserve them for posterity.
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Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable As Archivists Work To Save Them

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Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable As Archivists Work To Save Them

Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable As Archivists Work To Save Them

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's talk now about those memories from the '80s and the '90s on home videotapes - the kids playing in the backyard, the school concert, the birthday party, the wedding. If they're just sitting in a box somewhere, they may soon be unwatchable. Some people are calling it the magnetic media crisis. And some groups are volunteering their time to save the images on those tapes. NPR's Scott Greenstone takes us to one of those groups in New York.

SCOTT GREENSTONE, BYLINE: Every Monday at a loft in Tribeca, a group called Transfer Collective gets together to digitize old tapes. When the VHS loads into the deck, someone's memories appear.

MICHAEL GRANT: What's happening on screen is that, like, two kids who are super, super cute, they're, like, having a great time and dancing and playing. And the lights were flashing on and off.

GREENSTONE: Michael Grant and his colleagues are audiovisual preservationists professionally and in their free time.

MARY KIDD: We'll pretty much transfer just about anything.

GREENSTONE: That's Mary Kidd. She also works as an archivist for New York Public Library during the day, where she preserves records the library thinks are important. The Collective digitizers the things its members think are important, especially tapes from communities that weren't represented much in TV and Hollywood back then. They transfer weddings, public access TV, performance art - as long as it's on videotape. Tapes find their way here mostly through word of mouth. Once they're digitized, they go online on the nonprofit Internet Archive, which is available to the public. Tonight, it's going to take one evening to digitize this entire tape.

KIDD: You actually have to sit here and watch the tape. Like, you can't just magically have it appear on your computer. It's a real-time thing.

GREENSTONE: A two-hour tape takes two hours to transfer plus quality control and troubleshooting time. After all, VHS was never exactly problem-free.

BRENDAN ALLEN: We have a problem with a tape stuck in an old deck. So, yeah, I've just been sitting here doing some Google searches, actually, for an old manual.

GREENSTONE: The thing is Brendan Allen and his colleagues are working against time.

HOWARD LUKK: Basically, videotape is based on magnetic principles.

GREENSTONE: Howard Lukk is director of standards for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. The sound and images, he says, are magnetized onto the tape.

LUKK: Once that magnetic field that's been imprinted into that tape has kind of faded too much, you won't be able to recover it back off the tape after a long period of time.

GREENSTONE: Most tapes were recorded in the '80s and '90s, when video cameras first became widely available to Americans. Even the best-kept tapes are going to degrade eventually, and most people don't keep them in the best conditions. Lukk estimates there are billions of tapes sitting around.

There are plenty of services out there to digitize tapes - local stores, online services, even public libraries and universities. Some services are free. Some cost a lot of money. The thing is many people don't realize their tapes are degrading. And some who do know, even members of the Transfer Collective like Mary Kidd, haven't even gotten around to their own stuff.

KIDD: Sometimes I do fall asleep at night thinking to myself, oh, my gosh, is this tape in the storage space that I own slowly turning into goo? I hope not. (Laughter) I really hope not.

GREENSTONE: Meanwhile, Mary watches other people's memories digitize.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And there we have Justin (ph). Say it to the camera, Justin.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Hi, Mom.

KIDD: That's something.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Cool.

GREENSTONE: It's these important and even not-so-important moments groups like the Transfer Collective are trying to save. Scott Greenstone, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS")

DEAN MARTIN: (Singing) Memories are made of this. Don't forget a small moonbeam, fold in lightly with a dream. Your lips and mine, two sips of wine.

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