Indiana University Moves Forward with its Media Preservation Initiative
Jan 23rd, 2012 by Isaiah Beard

1/2 inch, consumer, open reel video format used in the 1960s-70s. This format suffers from Sticky Shed Syndrome, making playback difficult. Working machines for this long-obsolete format are scarce. Source: IUB Media Preservation Initiative, used with permission. Note: IUB has asked me to stress that the above photo is not representative of all media collections at the university.

The Media Preservation Site at Indiana University – Bloomington (IUB) makes its message loud and clear the moment you first set your eyes on it: “Our History is At Risk.”

Home to at least 3 million media objects, including sound and moving image recordings, photos, documents, and artifacts, IUB has come to grips with the issue at hand: a great deal of their heritage is locked within obsolete electronic and analog playback formats for sound and moving images.  As an old format becomes obsolete, it gets harder by the day to find working equipment to play back these objects.  And that assumes that the objects can be played back, not having succumbed to age, wear and physical decay. Lacquer from old aluminum audio discs can delaminate, making them unplayable. Video tapes from the 1960s, 70s and 80s can suffer from a condition where the binding agent that holds the recording material to the plastic base sheds, allowing audio and video recordings to literally flake into nothingness. Film, too, has its own serious decay problems.

With its vast collection, faculty and staff at IUB knew the situation could become serious if nothing was done.  Their first step was to take stock of the situation, and consult outside experts (myself included) to get input how how best to address the problem.

Their efforts began nearly 18 months ago when a group of IUB faculty and staff, concerned about the potential fate of important special collections on campus, approached their Office of the Vice Provost for Research about the critical issues of media, and to impress upon them that time was of the essence to address these issues.

“Even though [IU Bloomington’s] needs are now documented, and it is far better equipped than most universities in the country to meet them, there is no guarantee that IU can adequately preserve its collections in the near future.”

The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States, Council on Library and Information Resources for The Library of Congress, Washington 

The culmination of their efforts to date have been documented on the IUB Media Preservation Website, where they document their comprehensive effort to preserve IUB’s vast audio, video, and film holdings.  Some important documents from their study and efforts including IUB’s Director of Media Preservation Services Mike Casey‘s  Media Preservation Survey (PDF), outlining the collection holders, preservation stakeholders, the risks involved, and potential preservation strategies.  A follow-on public report (12MB PDF) also lays out the situation and what steps are being taken to save their special collections and historic content.  Continued engagement, updates, and discussion on decisions made and procedures undertaken are regularly made available on their Media Preservation Blog.

The IUB Media Preservation Blog

IUB has many years of work ahead of it, not only to transfer older content into more modern digital formats, but also to continue to maintain those archives, preserve new content, and keep pace with new technologies and formats to ensure that their collections are accessible.  It’s encouraging to see them in action, and their efforts stand as a potential framework for other organizations in a similar bind to model their initiatives after.

Japan’s Crises, and its ramifications on digital preservation
Mar 23rd, 2011 by Isaiah Beard

A Sony HVR-Z1U camera. This device is a digital video workhorse at the SCC, and relies heavily on digital video tape... something which could be rather hard to come by in the near future.

My heart, thoughts, and a donation goes to those affected by the Earthquake, Tsunami, and now radiological crisis that Japan must grapple with.  It’s not exaggeration to say this turn of events is truly unprecedented.  Sitting thousands of miles away, and only observing the events through websites and television screens, I’m aware that I cannot possibly grasp the ordeal that survivors now face.

With that preface, it’s difficult to even think at this point of how the disaster will inconvenience those of us far removed.  However, there will be a rather significant impact for quite some time, given our technological dependencies in a digital world, the number of electronic components and supplies that are produced in Japan, and how we use those components to capture our current history and cultural heritage.

Our first hints of trouble began with an advisory issued to consumers of magnetic tape media. Sony, a major manufacturer of various varieties of tape media as well as semiconductors, optical discs such as DVD and Blu-ray, and electronic components, has been hit hard.  Sony was forced to shut down a number of factories in the region while recovery efforts continue. The earthquake has forced a halt to production in various manufacturing facilities in Japan, including those of magnetic media manufacturers, and suppliers are now warning of an impending shortage and possible price spikes:

“Our industry has already been affected by a halt in media manufacturing operations – professional media supply shortages are evident, namely HDCam SR,” explained a post on the Comtel Pro Media web site. “Worldwide stock shortages present a realistic threat to our industry and the immediate needs of the television and motion picture production.”

Of particular note is a shutdown of the Sony Corporation Sendai Technology Center, currently the only facility in the world producing HDCAM-SR tapes.

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Lessons Learned from Google’s temporary Gmail loss
Mar 1st, 2011 by Isaiah Beard

GMail kept users notified through a status page of their ongoing recovery efforts.

This past week offered up a little dose of panic to an estimated tens of thousands of users to Google’s free Gmail service, when they logged in to discover that all of their e-mail was missing.  According to Google:

We released a storage software update that introduced the unexpected bug, which caused 0.02% of Gmail users to temporarily lose access to their email. When we discovered the problem, we immediately stopped the deployment of the new software and reverted to the old version.

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Reel2Bytes: Digitizing 1950s-era analog tape
Feb 23rd, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

Of all the work I do, I think dealing with older formats, and just figuring out how they work, is the most interesting aspect.

A few weeks ago, a stack of old open real tapes arrived, along with a similar-vintage tape player.  The recordings were done in the early 1950s, as part of a project to record the oral histories of various labor officials who were active in the early 20th century.  The recordings made it unequivocally clear that the intent was to allow students and researchers from decades into the future to get insight on the history of the labor movement in the state.

Well, for quite a few years, these tapes remained shelved and seldom accessed, until a faculty member from the School of Management and Labor Relations learned of their existence and wanted to use them in his courses.  Owing to the age of the recording format, the scarcity of playback equipment, and the condition of the tapes, there is no way that multiple students would practically access the tapes and have them survive.  But, that doesn’t mean the content should stay inaccessible.

And so, after getting a demonstration from out Special Collections staff on the best way to handle the tapes, and after mustering the courage to risk handling them, the player was hooked up to more modern digital recording equipment, and the digitization had begun:

I’ve always heard people talk about what wonderful sound fidelity the old open reel tape formats had, and they’re right; the sound quality is great, particularly for 55+ year old recordings. The physical condition of the tapes left much to be desired though: one reel had a paper backing, and was extremely fragile. Just playing it back was a white-knuckle experience. It’s a shame too, because one thing you do miss in the migration of old content to digital formats is the experience of handling these old things, and getting them working again. The operation of the tape deck; threading the tape, feeling the very mechanical-ness of the format and how it worked… these are things that modern digital formats have yet been unable to duplicate or preserve.

Additional photos of the setup and the reels themselves appear below the cut.
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Original NASA moon landing tapes: probably gone for good
Jul 16th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

40 years ago, the Apollo 11 mission blasted off into space, making history as the first successful human landing on the moon.  Unfortunately, NPR reports that after much searching, it looks like the best possible copies of the video that recorded this momentous event have long been erased:

Over the years, NASA had removed massive numbers of magnetic tapes from the shelves. In the early 1980s alone, tens of thousands of boxes were withdrawn.

It turns out that new satellites had gone up and were producing a lot of data that needed to be recorded. “These satellites were suddenly using tapes seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” says Lebar.

And the agency was experiencing a critical shortage of magnetic tapes. So NASA started erasing old ones and reusing them.

That’s probably what happened to the original footage from the moon that the astronauts captured with their lunar camera, says Lebar. It was stored on telemetry tapes, and old tapes with telemetry data were being recycled.

The article also explains how the specially-designed video cameras that astronauts took the moon produced videos of much higher quality than the snowy, blurry video American households saw that night, and we’ve seen for many years since.  Regrettably, the Apollo video cameras used a non-standard format, requiring machinations on the ground to both store the content and convert it to more conventional means (and thus, introducing the noise and blur on currently available tapes).

And so, NASA becomes a poster child not only for the pitfalls of poor preservation planning, but the perils of using non-standard, proprietary formats to record important, historic moments!


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