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History and Culture of the 1960s to 1980s Is Disintegrating With the Tapes That Recorded It

But a new test and a bit of chemistry can help preserve the past

George Harrison’s master tapes for "All Things Must Pass" (pictured here in 1970) are likely well preserved, but many similar audio tapes of the era could be deteriorating. (Bettmann/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

The biggest problem with the ever-changing world of technology is the need to continually convert old files to new. The issue is widespread, affecting everyone from museum archivists to home video collectors, and as the tapes age parts of our history and past culture could easily degrade away along with them.

Museums and other archives in the U.S. currently house around 46 million magnetic tapes, 40 percent of which are in unknown condition. As more time passes, experts fear that much of the audio and visual data recorded on these magnetic tape between the late 1960s and late 1980s will be lost, reports Katharine Gammon for Nautilus.

"[L]etting these tapes just disintegrate would be akin to idly watching millions of books fall into a pit of fire," Gammon writes. 

But rescuing everything from unreleased music by the Beatles to the tapes of the Richard Nixon trials will depend on some fairly sophisticated chemistry, Gammon reports. Magnetic tapes are made of a coating of iron oxide (the magnetic part) over a plastic tape. Over time, the glue that holds these two components together (specifically tapes that have a polyurethane binder) soaks up and reacts with moisture in the air, making the tape surface sticky and often unplayable. 

A temporary fix to this "sticky-shed syndrome" is baking the tape to release the moisture, but that also leaves it brittle. Baking is only worth it if the tape isn’t too far-gone. The problem is that playing a tape suffering sticky-shed syndrome to test its state can potentially damage it.

So how do you tell if a tape is no good?

A new device can scan the tape surface using infrared light, relaying information about the specific compounds on the tape. Researchers can use this data to tell how bad the tape is damaged and (with 92 percent accuracy) flag which tapes might be playable, according to their paper published in the journal Analytical Chemistry. This tool could tell archivists which tapes in their collection are worth keeping and which are already lost.

Though this is a promising temporary solution to the problem, some believe that digital conversion isn't ideal. And even worse, as these tapes age, the machines used to digitize them are becoming obsolete.

Yet for now, digitizing all tapes of suitable condition is our best bet for preserving the past. 

Editors Note, November 20, 2015: This post has been amended to clarify information about the types of tapes studied and the challenges that conservators are facing with aging technology. The photo was also replaced to more accurately depict the type of magnetic tapes discussed in the article.

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