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Bad Tapes: Archives Rescues Old Audio

by: Kimberly Parsons, Library Communications Assistant


The move this past summer to Sage had departments on campus excited for a new venture and a change in scenery.  The move became especially advantageous for the Journalism Department as staff discovered old photographs, as well as video and audio recordings that dated back to the 1960s and 1970s. The department’s ADA, Cindy Schultz contacted the University Archives at Polk Library to donate some of the new-found treasures.

Before the University Archives could decide if the tapes were worth keeping, they needed to play them. To do so University Archivist, Joshua Ranger, had to determine if playing them would damage the tapes, he was particularly on the look-out for “sticky-shed syndrome.”

Sticky-shed is a condition that occurs when the glue that holds the magnetic particles to the polyester base of the tape deteriorates. This then results in a gummy residue which causes a screeching sound during playback and holds the possibility of tearing the tape as well.

To remove the sticky-shed syndrome the tape is placed in a small dehydrator set to temperatures of about 145 degrees Fahrenheit. After around two hours the newly revived tape is finished “baking” and examined to see if the process was successful.  If not it can go back in the dehydrator.  If it seems the process has worked, the tapes are recorded on their first trip through the machine in case it would break unexpectedly.

After the sticky-shed was solved, the archives had another problem to deal with.  Reel to reel audio tapes were recorded usually in one of four speeds.  The tapes from the Journalism department were almost all recorded at a very slow speed to optimize the amount that would fit on each tape; however, the archives playback machine does not playback at this speed and the tapes end up sounding like a “chipmunks” recording.  Computer software, however, can slow down the playback to allow staff to get a sense of its contents and make permanent copies. University Archivist, Joshua Ranger, appraises the recordings for their historical value.

Many of the tapes from the Journalism Department turned out to be examples of national radio advertising spots used in class. Others were examples of student work, including a radio journalism story on new dormitory rules for opposite sex visitation. “Something like that is a bit of a two-fer,” Ranger said. “Not only do we get a rare example of student audio work out of the department, we also get an interpretation on an issue that was very important to students at the time."

Another hidden treasure was a recording made by Journalism Professor David Lippert and featured his family at Christmas in 1962. This recording was digitized by archives staff and given to the Lippert family.

The files that the university decides to keep are saved as two different file formats. First they are saved as a .wav file for preservation and also as an .mp3 file as an access copy. Both file formats are then saved to external hard drives that will be refreshed until a networked solution is found.

Posted by:
librarynews on May 15, 2012
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