A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the best way to preserve home videotapes?

March 7, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

I am a senior in high school this year and have all sorts of football games, speeches, plays, banquets, etc. recorded on VHS video tapes. Most of these tapes I would like to keep in good condition so I can reflect back on them someday in the distant future. I've been told that the tape they're on now will deteriorate over time and become all but unviewable. I realize VCRs will be a thing of the past very soon as well. So, do you have any advice for keeping these tapes in good condition? Even better, will there be some way for me to record them to DVDs anytime soon? Any information would be appreciated so that I don't lose record of my various high school activities.

As a museum curator, I and my colleagues deal with this sort of issue all the time. The rules of archiving are simple and universal: low temperature, low humidity, low light. If you want ANYTHING to last, those are the conditions you want to achieve. Many museums now have walk-in freezers, like giant meat lockers, in which they store things. It's easy to pack stuff away for the long haul, but if you want your tapes where you can watch them on the spur of the moment, forget it. You either decide in advance that you won't need to watch them for another 20 years and then vacuum-seal them and bury them, or you figure out a way to transfer them to a digital medium.

If it were me, and it looked like it might take more than five years for video-to-DVD technology to get into my hands (I suspect it's not all that difficult), that's really what I'd do--I'd vacuum-seal the tapes in plastic and bury them about a foot down in my yard, where the temperature is low, there's no light, and they're not taking up space in my fridge. Of course, I personally don't think that'd be necessary, but then again, in my line of work I have better-than-average access to new computer technology; maybe that would make a difference. Your call, but I think that if you just leave your tapes in a closet and don't play them, they'll still be fine when the time comes to make the transfer.

There are plenty of online resources devoted to helping you preserve your home videotapes. Here are a few:

http://aic.stanford.edu/treasure/video.html

http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/ byauth/lindner/lindner3.html

http://mst3k.mini ngco.com/tvradio/mst3k/library/weekly/aa050598.htm

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