Computer: How to care for magnetic media (Reels, Cartridges and Cassettes)

Computer: How to care for magnetic media (Reels, Cartridges and Cassettes)By Barry J. Ewell

Many of the tapes (magnetic media) I have for my family history are surrounded with irreplaceable moments in time, including personal interviews with family members; I tend to look at these tapes as source documents.  As I make digital replications of the data, I still seek to preserve the original as a backup. The life expediency of magnetic media is largely undocumented according to manufacturers.  Thirty years appears to be the upper limit for magnetic tape products, including video and audiotapes. The following are a few general guidelines for taking care of magnetic media.

General guidelines
1. Handling and use should be minimized to reduce wear.
2. Media should be of high quality from reputable suppliers.
3. Archive copies should be made to guard against faults.
4. Drives should be of good quality and well maintained.
5. Tape should be handled only in non-smoking, no food, clean areas.
6. Avoid contamination of the tape by dirt, dust, fingerprints, food, cigarette smoke and ash and airborne pollutants.
7. Do not drop or subject tapes to sudden shock.
8. Don’t expose to sun, heat or excess moisture.
9. Use high quality reels, cassettes and containers.
10. Return tapes to containers when not in use.
11. Do not use general purpose adhesive tapes to secure the tape end or for splicing.
12. Minimize handling.
13. Do not touch the tape surface or the edge of the tape pack unless absolutely necessary and then wear lint-free gloves.
14. Clear the recorder tape path thoroughly at the recommended intervals.
15. Discard tapes with scratches or any other surface damage because it causes debris to be left in the recorder tape path.
16. Tape is least vulnerable to damage when wound in a smooth, even pack.
17. Rewind tape at an interval of not more than 3 years. This relieves tape pack stresses and provides early warning of any problems.
18. Do not let tape or leader ends trail on the floor.
19. Cut off damaged tape or leader/trailer ends from open reel tapes.
20. For open-reel tapes, use protective collars.

Audio tapes
Audiotapes are preserved by re-recording original recordings onto reel-to-reel tape, following nationally recognized preservation practices and guidelines. Analog copies properly stored are considered to be the best medium for long-term preservation of sound recordings.

Digital copies are the better option for access and use. CDs suffer less from wear and tear during use than reel-to-reel or cassette tapes. High quality CD-Rs are a stable medium with a good life expectancy.

Video tapes
• Digital video formats are compressed and use very thin base films
• Compression methods degrade quality of video
• Mixing formats with different compression techniques degrades video quality— stay with one type of compression technique

Storage guidelines for videotapes
1. Keep in cool, relatively dry environment (60-73F and RH 20-30%). Avoid fluctuations (no more than 7F).
2. Monitor storage environment with hygrothermograph.
3. Store tapes on metal shelves, preferably grounded. If shelves are motorized, store tapes away from motors. Store tapes upright and allow for air circulation. Don’t store near magnetic fields created by motors, generators, television sets, elevators, headphones, speakers, microphones or magnets. Store duplicates and high quality masters in different locations.
4. Protect against accidental erasure by removing the record tabs.
5. Avoid contamination of tape surface. Touch open reel tapes by beginning and end only. Wash hands and use gloves.
6. After use, rewind to the end; don’t store a tape that is stopped in the middle. Rewinding means you fast-forward the tape all the way to the end.
7. Use high quality, brand name tapes for copying and remastering.
8. Label minimally and with proper materials. Use archival labels which are non-acidic and which adhere without peeling off.
9. Use appropriate tape containers (strong and stable, resistant to dirt, dust and water; inert; able to be closed and latched securely).
10. If you ship tapes, be sure they are double-boxed, with space between tape cases and exterior boxes. Use safe packaging materials, not fiber-filled mailers. For tapes in preservation storage: 50F and 30%RH.
11. Keep storage and playback areas free from dust and other contaminants.
12. Protect tapes from liquid, light and heat and erasure. Store in their cases. Don’t rewind after playing. Rewind just before playing.
13. From LC: materials to be preserved for a minimum of 10 years; store at 65-70F, 45-50% RH.
14. Materials having permanent value: 45-50F, 20-30% RH for magnetic tapes (open reel and cassette) and 45-50% RH for all others. Keep away from UV.
15. Videotapes will deteriorate over time. Store away from magnetic and electrical fields. Handle only by their cassettes. Do not use fast forward or fast reverse on playback equipment.

Strategy to help prevent information loss
In a situation where I am taking the original cassette or video tape and making a digital copy, the wear and tear on the original is dramatically reduced.  However, it is worth mentioning the use of multiple copies as another strategy for preventing loss of information. Recorded information can be lost in the following ways:
• The medium on which it is recorded has deteriorated to the point of being unplayable.
• The tape on which it is recorded disappears (misplaced, stolen, destroyed by fire or flooding, and so forth).
Both types of loss can be prevented by maintaining more than one copy of the information and storing all copies in separate locations.

If you have tapes that have been sitting around for more than three years, you can maximize the life span of the tape by recording the tape or simply playing it. Rerecording is normally recommended where prolonged tape pack stresses could cause damage to the tape. Some manufacturers have recommended that tapes be unspooled and rewound at regular intervals (often three years) to redistribute tape stress and prevent tape pack slip, cinching, and tape backing deformation. Rerecording requires that data be read from and written to the same tape periodically to refresh the magnetic signal and prevent data loss.

Watch out for stray magnetism
Over the years I have been cautioned to keep media away from objects displaying even the smallest level of magnetism.  The following are the types of magnetic fields that will or will not be harmful to your tapes:

Magnetic fields that will not harm magnetic media include
• Walk-through metal detectors.
• Some luggage screening fields at airports.
• X-rays.

Magnetic fields that can harm magnetic media include:
• Hand-held detectors.
• Transformers.
• Heavy electrical machinery and other very strong magnets.
• Magnetizing forces of the order of 500 A/m and above.

Best practices for protecting magnetic media when shipping:

  • • The best protection for shipping magnetic media is a minimum of 50 mm [2 inches] of nonmagnetic material all round the item. The inverse square law ensures that the fields from even heavy electrical equipment will not affect tape at 50 mm [2 inch] distance.
  • • Metallic boxes and foils offer NO useful protection against stray fields but may help exclude adverse environments.