Recently, I digitized 123 videotapes from the Duke University Living History Program. Beginning in the early 1970’s, Duke University faculty members conducted interviews with prominent world leaders, politicians and activists. The first interviews were videotaped in Perkins Library at a time when video was groundbreaking technology, almost a decade before consumer-grade VCRs starting showing up in people’s living rooms. Some of the interviews begin with a visionary introduction by Jay Rutherfurd, who championed the program:
“At the W. R. Perkins library, in Duke University, we now commit this exciting experiment in electronic journalism into your future. May it illuminate well, educate wisely, and relate meaningfully, for future generations.”
Clearly, the “future” that Mr. Rutherfurd envisioned has arrived. Thanks to modern technology, we can now create digital surrogates of these videotaped interviews for long-term preservation and access. The subjects featured in this collection span a variety of generations, nationalities, occupations and political leanings. Interviewees include Les Aspin, Ellsworth Bunker, Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook, Joseph Banks Rhine, Jesse Jackson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, King Mihai of Romania, Terry Sanford, Judy Woodruff, Angier Biddle Duke and many more. The collection also includes videotapes of speeches given on the Duke campus by Ronald Reagan, Abbie Hoffman, Bob Dole, Julian Bond and Elie Wiesel.
Many of the interviews were recorded on 3/4″ videotape, also called “U-matic.” Invented by Sony in 1969, the U-matic format was the first videotape to be housed inside a plastic cassette for portability, and would soon replace film as the primary television news-gathering format. Unfortunately, most U-matic tapes have not aged well. After decades in storage, many of the videotapes in our collection now have sticky-shed syndrome, a condition in which the oxide that holds the visual content is literally flaking off the polyester tape base, and is gummy in texture. When a videotape has sticky-shed, not only will it not play correctly, the residue can also clog up the tape heads in the U-matic playback deck, then transfer the contaminant to other tapes played afterwards in the same deck. A U-matic videotape player in good working order is now an obsolete collector’s item, and our tapes are fragile, so we came up with a solution: throw those tapes in the oven!
At first that may sound reckless, but baking audio and videotapes at relatively low temperatures for an extended period of time is a well-tested method for minimizing the effects of sticky-shed syndrome. The Digital Production Center recently acquired a scientific oven, and after initial testing, we baked each Duke Living History U-matic videotape at 52 celsius (125 fahrenheit) for about 10 hours. Baking the videotapes temporarily removed the moisture that had accumulated in the binder, and made them playable for digitization. About 90% of our U-matic tapes played well after baking. Many of them were unplayable beforehand.
After giving the videotapes time to cool down, we digitize each tape, in real time, as an uncompressed file (.mov) for long-term preservation. Afterwards, we make a smaller, compressed version (.mp4) of the same recording, which is our access copy. Our U-matic decks are housed in an efficiently-designed rack system, which also includes other obsolete videotape formats like VHS, Betacam and Hi8. Centralized audio and video routers allow us to quickly switch between formats while ensuring a clean, balanced and accurate conversion from analog to digital. Combining the art of analog tape baking with modern video digitization, the Digital Production Center is able to rescue the content from the videotapes, before the magnetic tape ages and degrades any further. While the U-matic tapes are nearing the end of their life-span, the digital surrogates will potentially last for centuries to come. We are able to benefit from Mr. Rutherfurd’s exciting experiment into our future, and carry it forward… into your future. May it illuminate well, educate wisely, and relate meaningfully, for future generations.
Post contributed by Alex Marsh