Dietrich SCHÜLLER Chair, Working Group on Information Preservation,
UNESCO Information for All Programme (Vienna, Austria)
world – are research documents, as most of them are held outside archival custody in the narrower sense, which results in unawareness of the risks and of the urgency to act.
As compared to 2011, the situation in 2013/2014 looks even more dramatic:
the availability of audio and video equipment in operable condition is shrinking with frightening speed. In 2011, the remaining time window was quoted to be
“10-15 years”, but this needs to be revised, specifically for magnetic tape replay equipment. The most recent trigger for enhanced alert is the last production run of replay heads for Studer A 807, the world’s most popular and widespread modern magnetic audio tape replay machine used for the digitisation of analogue magnetic audio recordings. The replay head is the heart of signal extraction process, the part that converts the magnetic information on the tape into the electric signal to be digitised. Replay heads are high precision spare parts, their quality is highly dependent on specialised production machines and – most important – on the experience of the operating personnel. Upon initiative of the Technical Committee of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), a collective order for 600 replay heads was placed for a last production run before the company is going out of business. The life time of a head is 2-3000 hours, and it is unlikely that additional precision heads can ever be produced again once the recent supply has been used up.
Replay head of a Studer A 807 audio tape replay machine
Audio and video replay heads are of central importance for magnetic tape replay devices, however they are not the only spare parts that become unavailable:
sensors, motors, and breaks are spare parts of high specialisation which can
hardly be produced individually, and failing integrated circuits (“chips”) are irreplaceable once production has been ceased. Analogue audio tape machines need reference tapes for their alignment, for which there is only one producer left. There are also more trivial objects like belts, pulleys and pinch rollers, and accessories like leader and splicing tape, spools and cassette shells that are essential for the replay of audio and video tapes, but increasingly unavailable.
The pessimistic spare part situation is aggravated by fading professional services and skills. Producers discontinue maintenance of their equipment of meanwhile obsolete formats, and highly specialised engineers reach retirement age. Today, responsibility for professional maintenance is moving to audiovisual archives, but only few of them are able to continue such services to the extent and level formerly performed by the producers of the equipment.
Less dramatic is the situation for the replay of mechanical audio carriers, specifically microgroove discs, so-called LPs or “vinyls”. After CDs had taken over in the 1980s, there is presently a “vinyl revival” which at the moment lifts pressure from mechanical disc replay. But there is no realistic hope for a similar movement in magnetic tape replay.
In summarising the situation, we have to realistically assume that within few years even the most popular and wide-spread magnetic audio and video tape formats cannot be replayed anymore, a situation which is already true for many video tape formats like Video 2000, Betamax or MII which at their times have not reached sufficient market acceptance. This may lead to a significant amount of magnetic tape collections which, despite their physical integrity, will be lost, because of the lack of replay equipment. This development will reach beyond the professional world: Compact Cassettes and MiniDV tapes, massively produced and used for private purposes, will also be affected.
In order to prevent this loss – or at least keep it as small as possible – the Information Preservation Working Group of the Information for All Programme (IFAP) suggested UNESCO to embark on an awareness raising campaign. This campaign entitled Magnetic Tape Apocalypse will inform governments and stakeholders of the threat to documents stored on magnetic tapes. IFAP and Memory of the World communities, archival NGOs and academic societies will be involved to assess the qualitative and quantitative dimensions by a short questionnaire on the UNESCO website.
On the basis of this information a concrete Plan of Action will be developed.
The campaign will start in autumn 2014, feed back is expected by the end of 2014, which will result in a Plan of Action in early 2015. This plan will go beyond awareness raising and will highly depend upon the response by Member States and concerned academic/cultural institutions and organisations.
In summarising it may be reminded that one of the key missions of UNESCO is the protection and promotion of linguistic and cultural diversity of humankind.
Written documents are unable to adequately represent spoken languages, dialects, and orally transmitted cultural phenomena like music, dance, and rituals. Therefore, audiovisual documents are the documents proper of linguistic and cultural diversity, and, consequently, their preservation is closely related to this key mission of UNESCO.
Failure to preserve audio and video documents would be an unprecedented act of passive destruction of primary source materials, thus undermining fundamental research principles. Without these primary sources, the validation of our present day’s knowledge would be equally impossible as the new interpretation of these sources in the light of evolving scholarly and cultural interests.
Their loss, eventually, would considerably diminish the resources for linguistic and cultural diversity in cyberspace
1. IASA Technical Committee Publications (http://www.iasa-web.org/iasa-publications):
• The Safeguarding of the Audio Heritage: Ethics, Principles and Preservation Strategy, edited by Dietrich Schüller. (= IASA Technical Committee – Standards, Recommended Practices and Strategies, IASA TC-03), Version 3, 2005. Also available in German, French, Swedish, Spanish, Russian, Italian and Chinese.
• Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects, edited by Kevin Bradley. (= IASA Technical Committee – Standards, Recommended Practices and Strategies, IASA TC-04).
Second edition, 2009.
• Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers, edited by Albrecht Häfner and Dietrich Schüller. (= IASA Technical Committee – Standards, Recommended Practices and Strategies, IASA TC-05), 2014.
2. Schüller, D. (2008). Audiovisual research collections and their preservation.
http://www.tape-online.net/docs/audiovisual_research_collections.pdf. 3. Schüller, D. (2012). Challenges for the Preservation of Audiovisual
Documents. A General Overview. In: L. Duranti and E. Shaffer (eds.), Proceedings of the Conference “The Memory of the World in the Digital Age”, 26–28 September 2012, Vancouver, Canada. 863–869. http://www.
Adolf KNOLL Secretary for Science, Research and International Cooperation,
National Library of the Czech Republic (Prague, Czech Republic)