As many of us have experienced, the constantly evolving world of technology has led us to try to convert our music, home video and photograph collection to the latest media. Even though new technology is beneficial in so many ways, it does force us to continually convert old files into new ones. And, it does not just affect us on an individual level. Those responsible for archiving medical, historic and other museum collections must adapt to new technology or risk the degradation of the important archives.
Currently, museums and other archives around the country store about 46 million magnetic tapes. And, as time marches on, many experts fear that much of the visual and audio data recorded on these tapes between the 1960s and 1980s will be forever lost.
As Katharine Gammon reported to the publication, Nautilus, “[L]etting these tapes just disintegrate would be akin to idly watching millions of books fall into a pit of fire.”
But, in order to rescue everything from unreleased Beatles’ music to the magnetic tapes of the Richard Nixon trials, some complex, very sophisticated chemistry is required. Magnetic tapes are composed of plastic tape coated with magnetic iron oxide. Over time, the adhesive that holds the two materials together absorbs and interacts with the air’s moisture. The result is a sticky tape surface that is often unplayable.
This phenomenon is known as the “sticky-shed syndrome” and can be temporarily fixed by essentially baking the tape to remove the moisture. Unfortunately, the process also leaves the tape brittle. Moreover, baking is only worth it if the tape is not already degraded too much.
However, there is one major problem: playing the tape with sticky-shed syndrome in order to test it can potentially damage the entire tape. So, how does one go about determining if a tape is damaged without doing more damage to it?
There may be some good news. A new device has the ability to scan the surface of the potentially damaged tape using infrared light which can then relay information about the specific condition of the tape. Researchers can then use this data to determine how bad the tape is damaged and can mark which tapes might be playable - with 92% accuracy. This new research was published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.
This newly developed tool can tell archivists what tapes in their collection is worth maintaining, restoring and digitally converting, and which tapes are already too far gone.
Though this is a temporary fix to the problem, many scientists believe that digital conversion is not optimal. But, it may have to do for now as sticky-shed syndrome slowly but continually eats away our past.