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Image Archeology or a shoebox ain’t going to cut it.

I’ve been involved with and participated in the Earhart Project since August of 2001.At some point – I want to say somewhere around 2008 I became the keeper of the video media – all of it – that the project has generated since 1989. The project has media that spans the gamut from consumer 8mm video shot on the first couple of expeditions to digital 8 which is a precursor of sorts to the DV format popular in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, to Betacam SP, DV tape, 720 HD,  and 1080 HD  which came into play 2010 going forward to the present. There has been some limited use of 4K HD lately but the data load of 4K isn’t very compatible for general expedition use given the parameters of the expedition work day.

With all the tape based material from 1989 thru 2001 there are 2 problems: 1) the recording medium is magnetic tape and both the physical tape and the magnetic recordings on the tapes are degrading over time. The oxide coating of the tapes loses its magnetism over time degrading the actual recording. 2) the mechanisms used to play back the recordings are no longer made, parts aren’t available, the people who know how to service the machines aren’t around any more, and many of the surviving tape machines are in poor condition, wearing out or functioning poorly.

To keep the earlier part of the project viable we’ve had to locate working machines and archive those along with the tapes. All the tapes have been digitized at this point and are archived both on hard drives and LTO tape, which is the best option cost results wise. If something happens to the digital archives, a trip back to the analog tapes would be necessary and there is no guarantee some of those old tapes will play back. The engineers who designed consumer 8mm tape back in the 1980’s probably didn’t take 30 year or more life span of the media into their calculus of design.

All tapes suffer from loss of magnetism, thought the Betacam SP format was designed with more robust recording protocols than the consumer tapes. That said, eventually all tapes will succumb to loss of magnetism, lack of functioning playback machinery or the recording oxide medium separating from the tape ( shedding) or possibly all three.

In 2007 the video documentation of the Earhart project moved into file based cameras, which meant that at the end of shooting day on the expedition, some hours were spent offloading or copying the original files from camera cards to two hard drives so there was a back up created at that time. Hard drives are not  archival. There will come a day when you plug in a drive to a computer and it does not mount, or doesn’t even spin. The original hard drive from the 2007 expedition, now 11 years old, has failed. All the files were backed up to LTO tape and a second hard drive prior to failure of the original drive. Life goes on.

Since 2010 the data load for Earhart Project video documentation has been going up as the video formats are moving towards higher quality. Fortunately hard drives, which are the buckets that temporarily hold the data have been getting bigger and cheaper, sort of tracking along with the increasing camera file sizes. To given an idea of this, in 2007 the whole video archive from the expedition that year was 700 GB. In 2015 the year of the most recent expedition, the data volume for the expedition had grown to 2.5 terabytes.

The big problem for this archive and every other archive of electronic media going forward is how to avoid going down the memory hole. Tape media can be  lost because original tapes having lost their magnetism won’t play back, working playback decks age out and break down either mechanically or electronically.

Undated Photo of my mom and two older sisters taken in 1945? Still viewable in spite of the marks left by tape, even after sitting in my parent’s unheated attic for 50~years.

Digital files can succumb to drive failure, file corruption or physical events like floods or fire that destroy archive media. LTO tape is a bright spot with a claimed 30 year life and a decent format roadmap into the future.

My prediction is that much of the media that has been created in the last 50 years is likely to disappear. The family vacation video tapes will be dust, unplayable, and the DVD’s that the videos were transferred to at some point won’t play either. The Seinfeld show, Cheers etc, will survive because its in the owners financial interest for those media files to survive, our  own photographic memories are likely to fail in one way or another, without fanfare, warning or advance notice unless we do the work to ensure they survive. The shoebox in the attic is no longer good enough.

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