Week 47: Wiring Diagrams

Back when I was researching about how to build a transfer lab for magnetic media, I didn’t find much documentation on how to actually set-up a rack. You know- where the chords go and stuff.

This documentation has also been heavily requested by staff members at my library who are assisting customers in the lab and troubleshooting.

I used the online graphic design platform Canva  and Issuu to make a book of them. For more information about our Memory Lab, go to the wiki.



Vancouver Public Library’s Inspiration Lab

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- the greatest advantage and challenge of my project is its uniqueness. After  researching and interviewing librarians and archivists who manage all kinds of public-facing capture staions or personal archiving outreach, I’ve yet to find something similar to the Memory Lab’s ambitious one-stop-shop for personal archiving.

But a couple months ago, I found something close.

In May 2015, Vancouver Public Library opened its Inspiration Lab, “a free place dedicated to digital creativity, collaboration, and storytelling.” In many ways it’s analogous to the Labs at DC Public Libraries- its got a sound studio like our Studio Lab, computers with robust production software like our creative computers in the Digital Commons, and collaboration spaces similar to our Dream Lab. Last but not least, they have analog-to-digital conversion stations!!!!!

PNG0505-Inspiration Lab

VANCOUVER: May 05 ,2015. – Peggy Watkins, library technician peruses some digital files as The Vancouver Public Library launches its new digital media hub the Inspiration Lab at the librarys central branch downtown Vancouver on Tuesday, May 5, 2015.VANCOUVER, May 5, 2015. (Jenelle Schneider/PNG staff photo) (for PNGstory by Gillian Shaw). [PNG Merlin Archive]

VPL’s Digitization Stations

There are 8 stations all together- 2 have open hookups so patrons can bring in their own devices to plug and play, and the remaining 6 are outfitted with the following:

  • Epson V700 Flatbed photo/negative/slide scanner station (2)
  • VHS video tape-to-digital conversion station (2)
  • 8mm/Digital 8 analog video casette tape-to-digital conversion station (1)
  • Audiotape-to-digital conversion station (1)

Stations use Elgato converters with CyberLink MediaSuite Software and Audacity Software for their tape-to-digital conversion workflow.

Another characteristic that got me excited was they’d set up the stations to be DIY. A helpful libguide gives step by step instructions with pictures for each kind of transfer, assuming only basic technological skills.


Interview with Erin Rickbeil, Assistant Manager, Inspiration Lab

The following are notes from my interview with Erin, organized loosely by topic. I wanted to include as much as I could for you readers, not knowing what would be useful (although all of it was useful to me!).

-Patrons book the space using the library’s booking system. At first patron’s were sending in emails, but it was determined that an automated system would make it easier for staff to provide faster service to patrons.

-Patrons book for 3 hour spots.

-Patrons log off and on themselves using a library card. They save onto the D: drive, and every morning a staff member wipes all drives to protect patron privacy.

-One staff member floats around the whole lab, so there’s always someone on hand but their time is shared.

-Patrons teach themselves using the libguide, printed handouts, or by attending a once a week “digital drop-in” where they can answer specific questions. Found that the vast majority of people had a specific thing they wanted to digitize, so orientations that covered all formats were not efficient.

-Patrons are moved to editing station for post-production work.

-Haven’t experienced technical problems yet with equipment, but the scanner glass has gotten scratched and they now keep an extra glass pane in stock so that it can be switched out. Scanner cleaning kits are available for patrons to use before and after sessions

-Staff do not screen tapes before they’re put into the machines.

-Not really wedded to particular formats at this point and they are taking ongoing donation requests for equipment.

-Judging file size and how long it takes to save files/ adequately scoping a 3-hour lab session. Staff are working to educate users on the impact of resolution on file size, and just how long it may take to upload or save large files.

-Patrons do not always bring in storage equipment, so staff now sells 16GB USBs.

-Scanning is the most finicky, although the average use time was only two hours vs. three for a/v.

-Unlike other stations in the Inspiration Lab, the digitization stations attract retirees and those who are not as familiar as other patrons with technology.

-The actual digitization is just a small piece of the process. Many patrons desire to incorporate what they capture into a creative project like creating a slide show, etc and want help with that as well or misjudge
how long it takes do create that.

-Staff desires to teach fair-use and copyright and long-term stewardship classes, educate about these issues or put them more seamlessly into the creative classes that are taught.

-Patrons are not digitization everything they are bringing in.

-Patrons have cried or laughed at the stations- it’s an emotional experience

-Very popular. In the first three months, 95 scanner bookings happened and 54 of them were pre-booked.

-VHS and scanning stations are the most popular.

Future Plans
-Next year, they are setting up a smaller version in a neighborhood branch.

-The central library where the Lab currently is sounds similar to our location- Erin is curious about how usage would be different if it’s in a
more neighborhood branch vs. downtown.

How this interview will influence the Memory Lab

It struck me that here at DCPL we were also planning similar workflows with the Memory Lab such as 3-hour lab limits, a libguide to facilitate DIY user behavior, and preventing post-production work in the space. We also had in mind rolling orientations, but VPL’s transition to digital drop-ins is something we will seriously consider.

The open a/v hookup idea is a genius way of broadening the lab’s capabilities without allocating more resources, so I’ll def. be using that idea as well (thanks Erin et al.!)

Most importantly, Erin raised a list of issues that I need to figure out how to prevent. Namely, what can I do to help patrons

  • understand the relationship between resolution and file size?
  • estimate how much memory will be needed?
  • estimate the time required for digitizing and saving?
  • complete their digital project by connecting them to other Lab resources?

Putting Preservation into Digitization

VPL’s Inspiration Lab is an amazingly cohesive space for patrons to work on creative projects from start to finish. That goal of aiding creativity is at the heart of their digitization stations, which are usually the starting place for people’s projects.

Although some equipment and workflows in the Inspiration Lab are the same, the goal for the Memory Lab is a bit different- instead of creation, our focus is on preservation. We are providing free resources for transfer and access as a method of accessible digital stewardship for non-archivists. Although I am aware that patrons will want to do creative projects with their files- such as making movies or slideshows to share with family and friends- the goal is still preservation. How can we give patrons the freedom to create while also ensuring that their seed material is preserved? The success of our Lab rests on this question.

Week 23: Digitizing My Video Family Album

Now that Home Movie Day is done, I’ve returned to testing equipment for the Memory Lab. Months ago I had picked up a box of my family’s VHS-Cs as material for testing, and I’ve been slowly working my way through the 30 tapes -or as the marketers at Maxell so cleverly put it – my “video family album”. Through this process I’ve not only smoothed out the workflow for this portion of the lab but learned first-hand the complicated emotional effects that accompany archiving a personal video collection.

The Panasonic Palmcorder was purchased in 1991 and used until 2001.

The Panasonic Palmcorder AFx8 Digital Fade HQ VHSC PV21 was purchased in 1991 by my family and used until 2001.

The Facts

According to Wikipedia, the VHS-C was introduced in 1982 with the same videotape as a VHS but much smaller and with shorter run times (the JVC and Maxell ones that we had could run in SP mode for around 30 minutes). VHS-Cs can be played on a regular VCR, but require an adapter with a battery-powered auto loading mechanism. I was able to find the camcorder in our closet but not the adapter, which I purchased on Amazon because it wasn’t available through any other vetted vendor.


Tape adapter >VCR > YCbCr/RGsB format converter > Blackmagic Ultrastudio Express converter > Macbook Pro > Media Express software > Handbrake software

This is my temporary transfer station. The tape is inserted into the adapter and played on a Panasonic AG-1980 Desk Editor. I’m using Blackmagic UltraStudio Express as my converter, but had to get a mini CV/SV to YCbCr/RGsB Format Converter to break-out the video signal (that’s the tinier gray box to the right). I capture the signal using Media Express, and then decomb and compress each video into an H264/Mpeg-4 file using Handbrake and save them on an external hard drive and Vimeo. In both locations I’ve added dates, tags of people and places, a short content description, and technical information about how the video was originally recorded and what I used for transfer.

I’m not quite finished. As of now I’ve transferred roughly 34.5 GBs with 7 tapes left to go. Only one video was damaged during the process due to user error (I loaded it incorrectly into the adapter and the tape got twisted up).

 The Feelings

As with any personal archiving project, I knew that I was going to remember things I hadn’t in years, perhaps be embarrassed by my annoying childhood self, and maybe even be confronted by reminders of painful experiences. All of this happened, but it wasn’t the same as personal archiving acts I’ve done in the past such as reading old diaries or going through a bin of photographs. There are certain aspects of video that make these emotional recollections much more immediate and powerful.

At the beach in winter. 1991

At the beach in winter. 1991

#1 Transferring in real time. I did an interview earlier in the residency with Kara Alexander, the Digital Media Specialist who runs the Scholars Commons Digitization Lab at Indiana University Bloomington. We were discussing the risks of patrons using the lab to transfer copyrighted video collections, and she commented that users are discouraged by the time commitment. Why would you sit for two hours just to digitize one commercial movie that you could purchase online or on DVD? Home movies and other types of amateur film or rare films are really the only thing worth the wait to digitize. But then you’ve got to watch them.

My brother and I made a dance video to “Get Ready 4 This” by 2 Unlimited. 1996

And so I did. I watched them all, only about 1/3rd of which I’d ever remembered seeing before. Over the weeks of capturing tape after tape of experiences that are intimate and alien, I’ve undergone a re-framing of how I see myself and my history. The most challenging is coming to terms with how untrustworthy my own recollections are of people and events.

Pageant. 1992. Didn’t really nail the Q&A the way I remember.

#2 Screen essentialism. Unlike photographs, papers, and even some film formats, you can’t see what’s on the video until you play it. My mother was our family’s archivist, and was diligent about labeling- usually putting the year and a title like “Jaime’s Birthday 1991”.  Four of the tapes in our collection had no labels but were in labeled cases, and it was obvious even after the first day of transfer that family members (including myself) had hurriedly put tapes back, not matching labels to their cases and inevitably mixing them up.

Another common occurrence is tape-overs. These tape-overs can be humorous and even artful, but they can also be quite jarring.


When watching a a 1995 family Christmas, it cut to my brother taping himself playing his Nintendo64 in 1998.

After it happened the first time I developed a sort-of PTSD, bracing for when I would inevitably be ripped out of one memory and put into another one. Out of the 23 tapes I’ve done so far, 8 of them had tape-overs.

Is it worth it?

Other issues came up that made the process challenging. Some family members didn’t want to see certain videos of themselves, so I’ve decided to put them all up privately on Vimeo and invite loved ones to review them and choose which files they want to receive. I also found myself struggling to capture everything- not only because of the time commitment but also because some of it was really boring (like how many Christmas videos do I really need of myself?). It was hard even as an archivist to decide what’s valuable to me personally vs. what might be valuable for the cultural record or for a family member.

But is it worth it? Yup.

During his talk on The Future of Memory, Rick Prelinger argued that the “turn to digital re-valuates the analog,” and that has certainly proved true during my process. Where the box of tapes would have been forgotten in my mother’s closet, now they are valuable because (a) family, friends, and I are aware of them, (b) they’ve been properly labelled and stored, and (c) I was able to see that they look better playing in their native medium than as compressed MP4 files.

The digitized files also have added value as VHS-C surrogates. Not only do they protect the tapes from frequent use, but they allow the control of our family’s archive to be shared by everyone. Each of us will be able to access or create with them in whatever way we find meaningful and convenient.

One question remains. Will patrons doing this work in the Memory Lab come away with the same conclusions? Will they see the reciprocal relationship between the analog and digitized versions? Will the ability to view their memories make them want to steward them?

Designing a DIY Lab: Lessons from MakerCon 2015

The following post was written for The Future of Information Alliance. It was published on October 8th, 2015 in their News section

As a National Digital Stewardship Resident for DC Public Libraries (DCPL), my project is to help the public with personal archiving, especially when it comes to digital materials. One strategy is to open a DIY lab where patrons can transfer their home movies off of obsolete media and/or digitize photographs and papers. The “Memory Lab” (as I’m calling it) is the fifth DIY space to open at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library under the umbrella of The Labs at DC Public Libraries.

The FabLab at MLK Library.

DCPL’s Fabrication Lab includes a 3D scanner, 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC machines.

The DIY trend has been referred to in the past decade as the “Maker Movement,” catalyzed by declining costs of professional equipment like 3D scanners and printers, the increasing amount of open source software available, and a recovering economy that encourages people to build out their skill set and stop paying others to fix things for them. This all comes at an opportunistic moment for information professionals as we redefine our public services and how our spaces are used, and DCPL is not alone in capitalizing on the Movement’s popularity. The Urban Libraries Council lists 43 other public libraries that have labs or “makerspaces,” and higher learning institutions such as the University of Maryland have also gotten on board.

To start thinking like a “maker” and find some inspiration for my lab design, I attended MakerCon 2015, a conference of entrepreneurs, product developers, and community leaders interested in the Maker Movement.


Makers= 300? Archivists= 1

Here’s what I learned from this community about designing a lab for the public:

Have a sense of play. Emilie Baltz, an experiential artist and educator, said during a panel that she included the phrase “and have fun” in the written mission of one of her projects. Users find play engaging, of course, but they also learn through it. What can I do to make my lab more playful?

Don’t make users dependent. Dave Rauchwerk, founder and CEO of Next Thing Co., premiered a $9 computer that he hopes will encourage people to innovate and stop seeing computing as some kind of inaccessible “dark art.”

I’ve thought a lot about making my process building the lab transparent for other librarians, but never considered patrons wanting this information. Maybe some will be interested in building a lab at home? How can I help them?

Try try again. I was inspired by the tenacious work ethic of the many designers at the conference, who go through hundreds of versions of a prototype before it’s ready for the market. One great example is Allan Chochinov’s work, Chair of the MFA in Products of Design graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, whose website 52,000 Knots documents his progress with the incredibly difficult and arcane knotting art of tatting that he taught himself through a series of YouTube videos.


Spring Doily, Round 6. (22,332 knots), from Chochinov’s site 52,000 Knots.

I have also had to teach myself a lot about A/V transfer, and get frustrated when things don’t work. In tatting, one mistake means going back and untying knot after tiny knot in the pursuit of perfection. Whether it’s zen or grit, Chochinov has mastered a state of mind that produces results. I also want to be as patient and deliberate when testing and improving my workflows. In the end, I’ll be making more than a doily (his words!), I’ll be helping people save their memories.

If you’re interested in learning more from this incredible group of people, you can watch the MakerCon 2015 sessions here. And watch for the Memory Lab’s opening in February 2016!

Week 11: Converted

My equipment came in really fast, so I’ve been testing everything out this week. I made a new board in Trello to track my progress, using the colored labels to represent the different pieces of equipment.


Click the image for a bigger view!

The orange label stands for the Honestech VHS to DVD 7.0 Delux A-D converter I purchased in Week 8, and as you can see from the screen shot, it’s had a lot of problems.


I wanted to try using a consumer-level A-D converter for the lab because they’re affordable (I could buy one for every deck and there would be no need to plug or unplug wires) and the software is very user friendly. I figured that a solid professional VHS player and TBC would help mitigate loss of quality in the converter (so wrong!). So, I looked at compatibility, time on the market, and reviews, and it came down to either the Elgato or Honestech. In the end, I chose Honestech because it can also burn video to Blu-ray, and had a simpler interface than the Elgato’s Cyberlink software.

“2015 Best VHS to DVD Converters Review” Top Ten Reviews



This nascent archivist gives Honestech a thumbs down.

I’m using two different laptops for testing- an Alienware laptop running Windows 8 with a fantastic graphics card, and a regular government-issued Dell running Windows 7- and two Honestech converter kits. Although Honestech is compatible with 7 and 8, the viewing screen for capture dropped out to black after about an hour on the Alienware computer. It’s still capturing video, but a user would have no idea what they were playing. To troubleshoot, I uninstalled the software and reinstalled the second kit, but the problem persisted. Then, I read online that consumers who had similar problems just downloaded a newer driver patch from the Honestech website. I did that, upgrading from 4.0 to 4.1, but it didn’t fix anything. By day 3 of testing, frequent freezing and a disturbing clicking sound have also developed on both computers.

Another problem is the length of time it takes to encode the files. Consistently on both, the ratio is about 10 minutes for every 1 minute of video – a formidable obstacle for a workstation that has reservation time limits.

The biggest clincher is that somehow I failed to notice the highest quality video this thing can capture is MPEG-2, and it can only capture audio as a Windows Media Audio File. Building this lab is a constant negotiation of archival quality and usability for the public, and I don’t expect users will be saving hours of uncompressed video files – but the MPEG-2 is just too lossy to be worth the conversion in the first place. As an example, here’s what a VHS-C played on a Panasonic 1980P looks like when captured and encoded as MPEG-2 with Honestech.

Is this even access-worthy? Even with plenty of light, it’s difficult to make out facial details that I can see clearly when played on a television set.

A Little Help From my Friends

Feeling discouraged and facing a tight deadline to get in orders for the current fiscal year, I sought help from Walter Forsberg, Media Archivist for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. He said I needed to get a converter that at least could encode up to an H.264 file format, and recommended I get the Blackmagic Design UltraStudio Express (and if you remember back to my site visit to the University of Maryland’s lab, Eric also recommended Blackmagic software). It’s an expensive piece of equipment and is only Mac compliant, but when I found out we could afford it and it would allow our Special Collections staff to do one-off in-house digitization, it seemed like a sound investment.

For those of you who can’t afford the price tag, the other consumer-level converter I was looking at, the Elgato, encodes in H.264 and goes for around $80. Live and learn.

Week 8: What We’re Getting (for now, at least)

After weeks of research, interviews, a site visit, bouncing ideas off of my mentors,  and procurement hiccups, we’re finally buying things for the Memory Lab.

A visualization of lab- but with people, and cords, and walls!

A visualization…. but with people, and cords, and walls!

The Set-Up

A/V Station

 The A/V Workstation will be used to transfer media formats such as VHS, miniDV and audio-cassette to disc, USB, social media or cloud storage.  Although I considered professional grade A-D converters such as Black Magic DeckLink 4K Extreme, I found their costs prohibitive and their software a bit complex for the average library patron. I chose the Honestech VHS to DVD 7.0 Deluxe because it’s been on the market for a while and has a good reputation, it’s easy to use, has robust capture formats (including Blu ray), and accompanying software that supports one-click wizard transfer and publishing options to social media platforms and cloud storage. For more advanced post-capture edits, patrons will be directed to one of the Digital Commons workstations outfitted with Adobe Creative Suite.

Other things: Audacity, Floppy drive

Photo Station

The Photo Workstation will be used for the digitization of photographic materials and documents to disc, USB, or cloud storage. Wanting to give patrons access to professional-level equipment, we chose the Epson 11000XL Photo Scanner. This scanner includes a transparency lid for digitizing slides and negatives, can batch scan files, and includes elements like the AutoFocus Optics system and one-touch color restoration.

For cases where patrons want to convert digital pictures to analog for storage or re-purposing, we’re buying the Canon Pixma iP110.  Both compact (it will fit in the A/V rack) and portable , it creates high quality prints at 9600 x 2400 dpi and can print directly from camera phones or digital cameras.

Other things: Picasa

A Lesson in Procurement

Besides the challenges of dealing with obsolete equipment (see Week 3), there’s also challenges inherent to the way purchasing works through the DC government. As it turns out, they don’t like for you to buy things off of Ebay (which is where the majority of this equipment is sold), and they’d prefer it be from a Certified Business Enterprise Contractor. I’m all for supporting small, minority-owned businesses in our community, and it would help the lab’s sustainability if we could form relationships with local vendors. BUT the directory is…… not very user-friendly. Because there are 1096 contractors, it made sense for me to search based on what I wanted to buy. The system is such that you can’t type in “VHS player” and get a list of contractors that sell them. You’ve got to go to the list of NIGP codes, do your keyword search there, and then use the corresponding codes back on the contractor page. If that wasn’t enough, the codes need some controlling for realz.


Should I choose Video Players, Video Cassette Players, a Video Recorder/Player, or a Video Cassette Recorder/Player?????

After 4 hours of searching, I found 1 appropriate contractor. Hmph.

What We’re Buying (Round 1)

Product type # Product name Vendor
Audio-Cassette Deck 1 Teac W-890RmkII Double Auto-Reverse Dual Cassette Deck B&H
Protection Plan 1 Square Trade Protection Plan – 3 Years B&H
External Floppy Drive 1 Sabrent 1.44MB External USB 2X Floppy Disk Drive B&H
Rack 1 CFR2136 36U AV Rack B&H
Time-Based Corrector 1 DataVideo TBC-3000 Time Base Corrector TGP Sales
VHS Deck (Professional) 1 Panasonic AG 1980P 4-head VCR TGP Sales
S-Video cable male to male 1 S-Video male to male cable TGPSales
Scanner 1 Epson 11000 XL- Photo Scanner Epson
wipes 1 KIMTECH® Kimwipes® (280-Pack) Gaylord
gloves 1 Microflex® XCEED® 3 mil Nitrile Gloves MEDIUM (250-Pack) Gaylord
swabs 1 Assorted Foam Swabs (36-Pack) Gaylord
compressed air can 1 Pressurized air duster Gaylord
DVD duplicator 1 Reflex7 CD/DVD Duplicator Disc Makers
DUP010-00552 – Reflex7 CD/DVD with USB 2.0
WAR001-00116 – 1 yr Extended Warranty-Reflex7 DVD/CD
Printer 1 Cannon Pixma iP110 Canon
Warranty CarePAK Plus (3 Yr.) Canon
Headphones 2 Maxell HP/NC-II Noise Cancellation Headphone Laser Art
UPS 2 APC Back-UPS 550V Laser Art
A-D Converter 3 Honestech VHS to DVD 7* Amazon
VHS-C Adaptor 1 Gigaware VHS-C Adapter Amazon
MiniDV Player 1 Sony DSR-40 DVCAM / DV / MiniDV VTR Player/Recorder Amazon
Applique 2 Frosted temporary applique Signs by Tomorrow

Building a Vendor Relationship

We’ve going to try out TGP Sales as  our go-to vendor for professional VCRs, TBCs, and any other equipment that might become available. I had heard the company mentioned on digitalfaq a couple of times (yes, I know I bashed the listservs previously but this actually was very helpful! ), and I liked that a biography of the video technician Tom Grant was one of the top links on the site. TGP also provides a lot of free information on how to care for their machines, which made me think that there was some heart involved here, you know? The featured professional decks were the exact models I was interested in getting, too, so I figured they had exquisite taste.

Scarred from my last phone experience (see my comment on Week 3), I dreaded calling, but Tom picked up and we had a nice little chat. Turns out one of his first jobs was as the A/V guy for a University library, and he seemed to be really excited about the project. He described in detail how he refurbishes the circuit boards in the PRO decks, and even offered to give over-the-phone training on how to maintenance the equipment. When I described to him the challenges of sustainability when working with the public, he suggested using a cheap deck to test the tapes for stickiness before I popped them in the Panasonic AG-1980, and I’m definitely going to try that out.

The quality of the machines will be the ultimate test, but I’m hopeful that TGP Sales and the Memory Lab can ride off into the sunset together.

Free Things

You’ll notice there’s a couple of things missing from our equipment list (furniture, computers), and that’s because they were already available at the library. Multiple old VCRs and tape players in our A/V department are also available for the lab, so I’ll be testing these in the coming month and reserving some as back-ups.

“Your first tester”: Toshiba SD-V296 DVD/VCR and a Panasonic Palmcorder Afx8

I’ve even received two donations (Thanks Nick! Thanks Mom!), leading me to think a city-wide donation drive might be a great opportunity to build-out our transfer capabilities and raise awareness about the lab. If you’ve got an old player or camcorder, hit me up!

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!