[This blog post comes from Stuart Parks of the Outer Banks History Center]
Archival organizations exist to preserve the past for the future. To accomplish this, we have to ensure that records of the past remain accessible to all, in years to come. This is especially challenging with audiovisual materials. While recording technologies of the past allowed us to preserve the unique sights and sounds of our community, this benefit came with a limited shelf life. Magnetic reels and tapes, popular recording devices throughout the 20th century, can only retain information as long as their magnetic charge holds true. Even with ideal archival conditions, this limited shelf life can be anywhere from a few decades to only a few years. The older this fragile source material gets, the greater the risk that it’s irreplaceable information will be lost forever. Through digitization, these recordings can be copied and preserved into digital formats, extending the life cycle dramatically and making them adaptable to future media formats.
Beginning in 2009, the Outer Banks History Center has taken steps to preserve our audiovisual collections. Based on a conservation assessment by Steven Weiss (UNC Chapel Hill), we identified tapes with oral history interviews, some of which dated back to the 1960s, that were the highest priority for reformatting. By tapping several funding sources and partnering with the National Park Service, 13 oral history collections, 7 of which were NPS, were transferred to digital format for a total of 395 audio cassettes digitized into over 132 GB of information.
Thanks to this new accessibility, OBHC staff members will no longer have to hunt for the lone functioning tape player since files are available on disc. Should disc players go the way of 8-tracks, a digital file of the recording will be retained in a separate hard drive, ready to be transferred to whatever audiovisual format becomes vogue.
More recently, the Outer Banks History Center has digitized 3 more oral history collections through the company MediaPreserve. The original master tapes, recorded in the 1980s, “Oral Histories Collected by Dave Poyer,” “Oral Histories Collected for the Book Ocracoke,” and “Oral Histories Collected by Virginia Ross,” were in fair-to-good condition. Although these were in our 2nd tier of priorities, we selected them to reformat next, since it is better to preserve these materials while they are still functional than risk losing the data to degradation. With this latest round of reformatting, we are now past the halfway point of digitizing all of our audio cassettes. The remaining ones were recorded within the past two decades and are stable. With a few more batches planned for outsourcing, it is only a matter of time before all of our audio cassettes, and the priceless heritage encapsulated on them, are preserved for the future, and we can stop hunting for that elusive functioning tape player.