Do you know why there is less than 10 years to digitise your videotape and audio tape collection?

by Adam Hodgkinson

Australia’s leading audiovisual collecting institution, the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), has taken the important step of raising awareness about the immediate peril facing audiovisual content kept on magnetic media – videotape and audio tape. The NFSA released their Deadline 2025 paper that highlights the fact that beyond 2025 the digitisation of content stored on magnetic media will be nearly impossible due to the impacts of technology obsolescence. That means there is less than 10 years to digitise videotape and audiotape archives. This is an undeniable and looming deadline; a truth that is recognised by audiovisual experts the world over. It’s great to see the NFSA raising awareness of the issue in a public forum, as this is a problem that we have been advocating for quite some time.

The clock is ticking for video digitisation

The impact of technology obsolescence really comes down to supply versus demand. VTRs and audio decks are mandatory for playback to enable the content on videotape and audio tape to be digitised. Both types of playback devices and their related parts have a finite life. This equipment and the associated parts are no longer being produced by the major manufacturers, and third parties manufacturing after market parts are few and far between. As machine stocks are depleted and become difficult to source, the premium associated with those that remain continues to increase. As this scenario plays out it will continue to drive the price of digitisation higher, until it simply becomes unviable. And this is without consideration of the associated human capital that is crucial to any digitisation activity.

To provide some anecdotal context to the financial impact, the well-known AV consultancy firm, AVPreserve, use 15% as the annual increase in costs to digitise videotape and audio tape collections as the default in their Cost of Inaction Calculator (it's worth checking out). In reality costs could rise a lot faster. Essentially this means that the earlier videotape and audiotape digitisation projects commence, the greater the opportunity to control the investment required and reduce the financial impact on your organisation. The longer you wait, the more expensive it becomes and the closer you come to missing the window of opportunity to digitise at all.

The 2025 paper uses the term mass digitisation; however, this term was not clearly defined. The paper does make reference to overseas projects so these numbers could be construed as a bench mark for mass-digitisation. In our view, 5,000- 10,000 hours could be representative of large-scale digitisation in Australia. Irrespective of whether you have a ‘mass’, large, medium or small collection, the ugly truth is still the same . . . the total volume of media ear-marked for preservation far out weighs the available resources required to digitise it all. Only those who act swiftly to beat their competition will save their content before it’s too late.

The NFSA’s paper neglects to mention the positive steps that some major Australian organisations have made in the area of videotape, film and audio tape digitisation. Several organisations have made great efforts to unlock the value in their archive, mitigate the risks of obsolescence and to make the content digitally accessible, including:

  • The Australian Government’s Parliamentary Services - over 55000 hours video content
  • The Australian Defence Force Academy -  over 11000 hours of video content
  • PRIME -  over 5000 hours of video content
  • SBS over - 17000 tapes holding video content
  • State of NSW- thousands of hours of oral history on magnetic audiotape

What is often absent in the discourse of audiovisual digitisation is that, for many organisations, digitisation is a stepping stone; it is not the end game. Attention should be directed at what can be done with the content once the collection is digital: how the collection will be curated; how it will be enriched; and how it will be made accessible to the community to view and repurpose. This is where the value is, this is where the focus, smarts and energy should be going. Digitisation, after all, only has a ten year window, at most, to be undertaken. This means that organisations who are investing in the development of skills, technology and capabilities associated with digitisation in-house are spending scarce resources on creating a redundant capability. No sooner will you have achieved a centre of excellence, you will find that there is no longer a need to sustain such a competency because it is no longer viable.

Making content shareable is what is important

There are a handful of experienced specialist audiovisual digitisation service providers, like us, scattered around the globe that have a concentration of rich knowledge derived from the undertaking of hugely diverse range of projects to digitise videotape, audio tape and film archives. The same providers already have the equipment, capabilities and unique knowledge that can only be gained through running small, medium and large scale digitisation projects, year in and year out. This presents a perfect opportunity to explore public-private partnerships to fast track audiovisual digitisation projects.

There is no lack of desire or aspiration from most organisations we talk to to digitise videotape and audio tape collections, not to just preserve the content, but to use and share it. However, the dream is dragged back to reality by a lack of funding opportunities for those with both small and big visions. This can be an even greater challenge for the public sector, where an ire of anxious tension looms as legislation demands preservation, but funding is not forthcoming. The issue of funding, however, may shift as organisational leaders start to recognise the severity of the situation and the size of the losses, both commercially and culturally, faced if action is not taken now.

As highlighted by the NFSA, the clock is ticking. Developing frameworks are a fantastic way to model and plan when time is in abundance. But time is not on our side. The time to digitise content on videotape and audiotape is now. There is so much rich and useful content out there; untapped resources just waiting to be discovered by so many generations to come. It is unthinkable that this is at imminent risk of being lost.

I encourage you to read the 2025 paper not only because it is good to see that this very real crisis is receiving some media attention, but also because it should be a catalyst for all collection custodians to act. As you read it, consider what you need to do to digitise your videotape and audiotape archive to avoid missing the digitisation window and risk losing your videotape or audiotape archive forever. This is no longer a problem for the next generation, this is a problem that needs to be resolved here and now.