Do I digitise a videotape when I don’t know what is on it?

by Adam Hodgkinson

Should I digitise videotape before or after I know what is on it.

Should I digitise this videotape when I don’t know what’s on it? That’s a good question; and one that people should be asking as they prepare to digitise a videotape collection. To digitise videotapes requires investment, in terms of time and money. So it is to be expected that you would take a measured approach to selecting which videotapes you want to digitise. The selection process usually starts by assessing the value of the videotape’s content to the organisation. This means you need to know what content is on the tape in the first place. And this is often the first stumbling block for a project to digitise videotape content.

It is not always easy to determine what is on a videotape. Until recently, this stumbling block has resulted in video digitisation projects being delayed or being put on the back burner, however, with such a short time left to digitise videotape collections, you need to resolve this issue, and quickly.

For the most part, videotape archives are developed over time; they are acquired from a variety of sources and contain a variety of tapes formats. Generally speaking, good archival housekeeping practices dictate that as tapes are received into the collection they are catalogued and the associated metadata is recorded into a database. This means that at any time in the future the database can be consulted to determine the nature of the content that is held on any particular tape. This then forms the basis of the tape selection process.

For some organisations, they have this information all set-up and the selection process is relatively straightforward. However, for others, in reality there is no collection database – it hasn’t been maintained over time, the catalogue may have been lost or collections have been acquired with no controlling information. This makes assessing value of the content in a collection a much greater challenge. If there is no metadata, the only way to identify what’s on a videotape is to watch the content. And there in lies the problem.

It can be argued that there are three options available to those of us who don’t know what content is kept in our videotape archive:

1. Do nothing and hope there is nothing of value in the collection.
2. Assess the content by playing back the physical videotape.
3. Digitise the videotape first and assess the content after you digitise.

Not doing anything is a huge gamble. All collections should be assessed for their value to ensure that cultural or commercial heritage is not lost. Doing nothing at this point in time is essentially throwing the whole collection in the bin.

That leaves us with two options, make your assessment before you digitise or after you digitise. Both pathways offer pros and cons, both have risks and both require investment. There is no standard practice, and ultimately it is up to you as the collection owner to make an informed decision based on your organisation’s circumstance. To assist in the decision making process, below are some considerations that you may want to think about as you determine your course of action.



Access to videotape playback equipment ( i.e. VTRs)

The first thing to consider is whether you can playback the videotape to assess what’s on it? This is not an easy task.

There are numerous consumer and professional videotape formats. The first format was 2-inch videotape, a reel-to-reel format that was produced back in the 1950s. Fast forward (pardon the pun) to today and there are formats like HDCAM, with a multitude of formats in between. Each format that has been manufactured requires a proprietary videotape playback device or VTR (i.e. you need a VHS VTR to playback a VHS videotape). This means that for every tape format you have in your collection, you will need the corresponding tape deck. 

For a collection that is made up of only one format, VHS for example, getting access to the right video playback device may not cause much of a problem. Although, with Japan recently ceasing production of all VCRs, getting access to a once ubiquitous device is already becoming significantly harder. If you hold a mix of formats in your collection (think U-matic, DVCPro, Betacam, DVCAM Hi8 and so on) as is the case for many archives, getting access to all the required playback equipment is not easy.

Access to the skills to operate and maintain the VTRs.

After considering access to VTRs, you need to consider the availability of the skills required to operate the equipment and potentially fix the equipment if it fails. As mentioned above, there are a range of videotape formats, and each tape format requires a different playback device. And each playback device operates in its own unique way and in a progressively more complicated manner as you move from consumer formats like VHS to professional formats like U-matic. Consider 1-inch videotape, which is a reel-to-reel format developed in the 1970s. This requires the operator to thread the tape through the tape path as the first step to playing the tape, which requires a good understanding of the equipment.

As already mentioned, maintenance is a consideration. If you invest in setting-up a workflow to review the content on the videotape only to have the machine fail, this can impact the project timelines and associated budget. You will need access to someone with the knowhow to repair the machine, a commodity that is in steep decline.

Risks with playing back the videotape.

If you and your team are not knowledgeable about audiovisual technology, there are risks involved in playing back the tapes. Two examples include -

1. Equipment failure - If the equipment isn't maintained properly, you can risk "chewing" the tape. As an example, VTRs have a range of tape transport components tucked away in the body of the VTR. If these components are failing the tape path may come out of alignment which can then lead to the tape being “chewed” or snapping due to incorrect tolerances.

2. Degraded media - If the media is older or hasn’t been stored properly, chances are that it could be degrading. Degradation could come in the form of Sticky Shed Syndrome, where the recording surface breaks away from the backing tape. Playing a tape with Sticky Shed may result in the loss of content as the recording surface (what your content is recorded on) is left behind in the VTR. You can never recover the content if that happens. There are ways to overcome Sticky Shed, however, there is a science to the process and it requires special equipment. Another example of degradation is the development of mould on the tape commonly caused by poor tape storage conditions. If mould is present in the collection, the problem is twofold. Firstly, mould can inhibit the ability to playback the content on the tape because the signal is impeded. The second is that you risk infecting your equipment and contaminating clean tapes in the collection by playing both clean and mouldy videotapes in the same equipment. 

So, for some collections, or parts there or, there is a heightened risk of loss or damage to your content if tape playback is not conducted correctly.

Is the right person, with the right skills, and right the equipment on hand to make the assessment?

Having someone with the appropriate knowledge and skills to make an assessment of the content is an important factor in the selection process. This means you need to consider getting the right person, in the right place, at the right time to assess the content. Physical videotape archives, for the most part, means that viewing content is restricted to the person watching the content being in close proximity to the playback equipment. In terms of assessing content, this means you need to have the person, with the appropriate knowledge of the collection to make an informed assessment, in the same place as all the equipment. In the case of collections that have been gathered over time, this may require having more than one person to assess the content. In turn, all relevant parties will have to find their way to the equipment to the view the content. This may cause disruption to those involved and hamper or slow the assessment and selection process.

The right people and equipment to digitise videotape.



How do we view the content?

Once digitised, the content can be viewed straight from your computer using standard applications, which most people these days are a custom to using. These tools mean scrubbing or moving through the vision is easy and requires little to no training on how to operate the player. This can therefore reduce the time required of individuals assessing the vision and in turn reduce associated costs.

Ability to collaborate on content assessment.

After you digitise videotape, your content becomes more flexible, as you are not constrained by the physical paradigm. In a digital form you have the flexibility to assess the collection from the desktop. This can have benefits such as allowing multiple people to assess the collection across multiple locations without the burden or cost of getting everyone to one location. For example, think of a school archive. The archivist may not be well versed on the content that was captured 30 or 40 years ago. Once digital, the archivist can seek input about the content from ex-faculty and alumni by sharing the content over the web. That group can then provide contextual information about the content to help inform its value to the school.

Sharing content may not always be as easy as it sounds though. There are varying degrees of simplicity/complexity involved with how the content is shared and access control is maintained. For smaller collections, access and control may be handled with existing systems, however, for larger collections, or where you are trying to share the content across a wide network of people, you may require specialised software applications to manage the process in a controlled manner.

Control of the collection post assessment.

If you make your assessment of the videotape collection before you digitise, you know the output from digitising the collection will deliver a clean and ready to go digital archive. If you digitise the content first, and then assess the collection after, there may be additional data administration tasks to keep the collection “clean”. By this we mean, if you digitise correctly, you will be receiving multiple copies of each title to achieve a variety of outcomes (e.g. preservation, reproduction and access). If after assessment you decide titles (clips/files) are to be removed from the collection, the custodian or collection administrator needs to take the appropriate caution and action to delete all related data. However, if this process is properly planned, it is a straightforward task and can be done efficiently.


Both processes will incur cost.

Assessing prior to digitisation has a corresponding price. The cost of acquiring equipment if you don’t have it or maintaining equipment you do own it has to be allowed for, especially where you have multiple formats in the collection. And storing that equipment takes up real estate that needs to be accounted for. The human resources required to playback videotapes and to assess the content also comes at a cost. And the risk of damaging or destroying content in many cases cannot be assigned a dollar figure as the content is impossible to replace. These are all operational and direct costs that need to recognised in the decision making process - especially, if you consider the likelihood that you have to invest in videotape digitisation anyway.

To digitise your video content first also comes at a cost. There is undoubtedly a risk that you may over investment because you decide that some of the content is not relevant to your collection, therefore you paid for something that did not need to be digitised. And post digitisation you will still need to undertake the assessment process, however, once your content is digital you can leverage the efficiencies delivered by file-based assessment process such as access and the ease of viewing reducing cost related to manpower.  

Get videotape digitisation underway.

The points mentioned above are not exhaustive, but they do provide a good foundation for considering the risks and advantages of the different options for assessing the content in your videotape collection before or after you digitise videotapes. Whichever way you choose to go, acting soon to digitise your videotape collection will start to yield savings for your organisation. The sooner you select the videotapes to digitise the less your organisation will feel the impacts of the rising costs of digitation due to technology obsolescence. And most importantly, the sooner you can enjoy the benefits of a secure and accessible collection that you can share with your community.

Find out about video digitisation.