Week 3: Magnetic Media’s Bringing Me Down

Close-up of an audio cassette

I am building a personal digital archiving lab at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library that will include digitization equipment and metadata friendly capture software for public use. These are the 5 formats I’d like to address in the first implementation phase:

1. photographs/ slides



4. audio-cassette

5. 3.5″ floppy disk

What’s easy: Photographs and slides will be relatively easy to digitize because they can both be done on a flat-bed scanner with the right accessories. CDRs, DVDs, and even 3.5″ floppies are also relatively doable because the external drives and write-blockers I will need are still in production.

What’s not easy: Magnetic media like the VHS and audio-cassette formats are turning out to be a real annoyance for the parameters of my project.


I really wouldn’t have known where to start if Eric Cartier, Digital Librarian at the University of Maryland, hadn’t taken the time to walk me through the University’s digitization lab and processes. I got expert advice on brands, capture software, and doing QC, but the most important thing I learned is that equipment breaks A LOT. And it’s not a slow-death-with-plenty-of-warning kind of breaking, either. When they go, they go, with hardly a death rattle.

UMD's Digitization Lab

A deck of players at UMD’s Digitization Lab.

Challenge 1: Things Break

All hardware breaks, of course, but when old hardware breaks, it’s not covered by a warranty and it’s not so easy to go out and find replacement parts for a machine that is discontinued. This is a sustainability issue for any digitization lab, but ESPECIALLY for ours, because the public will be bringing in all kinds of stuff from all kinds of basements and attics to gum up the works. We need to be able to balance taking care of our equipment and adequately servicing our users.

One potential solution is to buy in 3s. If we have one VCR on deck and two in the back ready to replace it,  we should be able to avoid service interruptions. A second idea is to develop a relationship with a local business who could service the machines, which I’m currently investigating. Of course, if anyone wants to give me a $7000 tape cleaner like the RTI 490 VHS Family Tape Cleaner, that’d be swell.

Challenge 2: Thing vs. Thing

At the very beginning of this process, there was a small part of me that thought maybe, just maybe, I could buy a VCR and a boombox from Best Buy or something and call it a day. NOPE. VCRs and cassette players were at their peak performance in the 80s and 90s when they were the most popular. Now that there’s no market demand, their quality has declined, and archivists like me are left scavenging our organization’s basements and online marketplaces like Ebay.

Even now that I know obsolete players are the best, I’m having trouble navigating elusive names (the Funai ZV427FX4 or the RCA VR603AFH??), and figuring out preferences such as: How much of a difference is there between the 4-head and 2-head player? Do I want built-in TBC? Can I do without the remote? Can I choose by brand alone or should I be faithful to specific models?

I’d like to share a few great resources for those of you in similar situtations.  Stanford’s documentation on their digitization services, complete with lists of their equipment and cleaning supplies, is up online. To run options by experts, contact digitization labs or, like I did, visit them in person and try to buy them lunch. For VCRs specifically, this Buying Guide entry from 2009 on the Digital FAQ thread is a great reference.

Don’t- under any circumstances- make the mistake of investing hours of time scanning the threads of niche consumers. jman98 sums it up very well in this VideoHelp Forum:


Although I don’t agree that “no one” will have interest in family films, he’s right to say that practicality needs to be considered along with quality. Will the public notice a 5% percentage of improvement for the amount of work and money it takes to stay true to the “best” brand?

My current strategy is to invest in the other tools necessary for the digitization process- converters, external time-based correctors, etc.- as a way of mitigating a reliance on finding “the best” obsolete hardware on the market.

Challenge 3: Unpredictability

Rather soon I’ll need to submit a formal Report of Recommendation for the lab, which should include cost estimates for each piece of equipment I want to purchase as well as some kind of prediction of annual costs to run the lab. Obsolete hardware makes this difficult to do because the prices vary (the same model of player could range from $200-$2000) and you can’t tell how often you’ll need to replace them. Once again, having some kind of dedicated vendor that could guarantee a certain price range for the players could strengthen my recommendation.

I’d love to hear from those of you who have or are building labs and how you’ve stood up to the challenge of magnetic media!

2 thoughts on “Week 3: Magnetic Media’s Bringing Me Down

  1. In the first iteration of this post on 7/1/2015, I mentioned a store that I was looking at as a possible vendor for VCR players called vcr-players.com . After calling them and doing some investigating, I have deleted that rec from this post because: they’ve had 3 Better Business Bureau complaints filed against them, their using a weird phone messaging service, and the owner of the website is using a service to hide his/her identity. So- as you can see- this is a tricky area.
    If you ARE looking for a vendor stay tuned for my end-of-the-month post!!!


  2. Pingback: Week 11: Converted | Jaime Mears

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