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Inside the Collective That Turns VHS to Digital Video for Free

A team of media lovers wants to preserve your memories for history’s sake

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smithsonian.com

The next time you attend a cultural festival, you may find something aside from films, flyers and food—people who want to digitize your old VHS tapes. Hyperallergic’s Sarah Cowan reports that a group called XFR Collective (pronounced like “transfer”) is bringing archiving services to non-mainstream settings to help prevent cultural treasures captured on tape from degrading.

Cowan caught up with the group, most of whom graduated from the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program at NYU, during the MIX NYC Queer Experimental Film Festival in New York. There, they set up a real-time transfer station complete with mini DV and VHS deck. By digitizing home videos, old art projects and long-obsolete TV shows, writes Cowan, the Collective hopes to uncover lost moments in our social history.

“A sense of impending doom underlies conversations with XFR Collective members,” writes Cowan. That’s because tape is such a fragile medium. Magnetic media such as VHS tapes are subject to many types of information degradation, writes John W.C. Van Bogart for the Council on Library and Information Resources.

Van Bogart adds that even copying videotape is risky—the quality of a video is “directly related to the strength of the magnetic signal recorded on the tape,” unlike digital video that can be copied over and over again without sacrificing quality. For an illustration of what he means, check out this video, which shows a VHS tape losing quality with each copying generation:

Given the fragility of old recording media, XFR isn’t wasting any time getting its hands on old videotapes. On the group’s website, XFR Collective says its mission is to “preserve at-risk and obsolete audiovisual community media by providing low-cost migration services to independent content creators for education, research and cultural engagement.” So don’t throw away those old tapes—you never know what treasures they might contain.

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