The Preservation of Magnetic Tape Collections: A Perspective

In addition to such issues as format obsolescence, which may necessitate frequent reformatting of collections (often within only a few decades), it is believed that extending the life of original materials is an important aspect of the preservation of tape collections.

A simple reason for this is that tape collections are generally so large that it is unlikely that any reformatting program could keep up with the need for copying. Clearly, preserving magnetic tapes and other types of machine-readable records is strongly dependent on the sustainability of the format itself and the availability of format-specific equipment, but the useful life of tape collections may also be limited by material decay, which leads to information loss.

This three-year NEH-funded research project was designed with two major goals in mind. The first was to identify the major issues in the preservation of the physical integrity of magnetic tape collections. The second was to evaluate the possibility of developing a nondestructive diagnostic tool for assessing the condition of magnetic tape collections. Condition assessment could play a significant role in the development of preservation strategies for tape collections, but at present there is no easy way to evaluate tape condition. It was hoped that a simple diagnostic tool (similar to A-D Strips for testing cellulose acetate film) could be developed to identify deteriorating tapes and that such a diagnostic tool could be integrated into an overall preservation management strategy for magnetic tape collections.

The project began in 2003 with laboratory tests on a series of magnetic tape samples. Condition data was collected on various tape formats that were both naturally and artificially aged. Specific accelerated-aging procedures were developed, and the condition of the sample tapes was monitored over time using acetone extraction, friction test, and acidity measurement. The experimental results cast some doubt on the feasibility of developing a diagnostic tool for tape collections. One reason for this was the widely varied behavior of the tapes. Another reason was that the only nondestructive test, the friction test, did not detect any significant property change. As the research concludes, a re-evaluation of the current thinking regarding tape preservation seems to be in order, and a different approach may be needed for developing a practical magnetic tape preservation strategy.

Download the final project report to NEH in PDF format.