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12 things I learned by digitizing all my ancient VHS tapes

12 things I learned by digitizing all my ancient VHS tapes
By Harry McCracken • Issue #7 • View online

In 1985 or thereabouts, when I was in college and $500 was not easy to come up with, I splurged on a gadget I’d lusted after for years: a VCR. (A VHS one–though Beta was still viable at the time and I had to decide.) For the next 15+ years, I taped from TV with abandon, swapped cassettes of hard-to-find items such as old black-and-white cartoons with friends, and built up a formidable library of pre-recorded tapes. And then DVD and DVRs (bless you, ReplayTV) happened and whatever VCR I owned at the time became a doorstop.
By then, I had hundreds of videotapes, and though I didn’t watch them, I did care enough to bring them with me when I moved from Boston to San Francisco. They sat in storage, disorganized and degrading.
Eight years ago, I bought a Toshiba VCR/DVD recorder combo unit and promised myself I’d burn all my tapes to disc, and then digitize at least highlights for viewing on all my devices. Several years then passed without me investing much time in the project. And then, about 18 months ago, I began to tackle it in earnest, a few tapes at a time.I’m almost done with the burning now. (I think—my wife found a couple of tapes I’d forgotten about in a closet today, and I won’t be the least bit surprised if there are other caches of them salted elsewhere in our home.)
What started out feeling like tedium has been a surprisingly rewarding experience—enough so that I’m glad I did it even if I don’t end up watching the videos I’ve rescued all that much. Here’s what it’s taught me:
The more excited I was about taping something, the less chance that tape matters today. No matter how thrilled I was to tape Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory off TV during the Reagan administration, there’s no reason to get excited over a preserved digital version of that particular recording. It looked iffy when I recorded it and much worse now, and I have an infinite number of options for watching a pristine print of the same movie.
Harry McCracken
I have hundreds of old VHS tapes that will soon be turning to goo. Some are worth saving, others aren't, no time. Figuring out what to do.
News is worth preserving. In the 1980s, I did a fair amount of taping of news coverage, particularly regarding politics. Mostly, it involved events that wouldn’t make anyone’s list of the decade’s most important stories, and included the George H.W. Bush inauguration ceremony and now-forgotten debates from the 1984 presidential primaries. The less I’ve thought about such fleeting moments over the past few decades the more fun it’s been to rediscover them. And it doesn’t matter if the recording quality isn’t pristine—in fact, any glitches add to the period-piece feel.
I’m glad I often forgot to press the Stop button. Many of my tapes include whatever was on immediately after whatever I meant to tape—sometimes several hours’ worth of it. It’s utterly random—sitcoms I didn’t care about at the time, unimportant local news broadcasts, obscure public-television programming, even my cable company’s scrolling channel guide—and in at least some cases, I’m watching it for the first time as I digitize it. It adds up to a richer snapshot of the era than I’d get if I’d only recorded stuff on purpose.
Also, did I mention that when I originally recorded the tapes I eventually got bad about labeling them? Even things I meant to record in the 1980s and 1990s were often surprises in 2017 and 2018, like little Easter Eggs I’d left for myself.
Old commercials are always transfixing. Back in the day, I was occasionally fastidious enough to edit the ads out of something I taped. Mostly, though, I just left ‘em in. And they’re often the highlight of a VHS I’ve digitized—whether we’re talking about Lionel Richie shilling for Pepsi or a lovably amateurish local spot for some car dealer.
I’m left thinking that someone should start a crowdsourced effort to preserve every TV commercial ever made for posterity. I won’t spearhead such a project—but if you do, I’ll contribute my accidental collection of 1980s ads.
Videotape ages unpredictably. Even in the 1980s, it was clear that VHS was ill-suited to serve as an archival medium and you should be prepared for anything you recorded to fade away. There was also conventional wisdom about the comparative quality of various tape brands. I want to say that I bought into the idea that TDK made good tapes and Scotch’s were subpar … but maybe I have that reversed. (Regardless, I apparently bought both brands.)
Here in the present day, some of the tapes I’ve dug out for digitizing are in surprisingly decent shape–even the oldest ones. Others suffer from a variety of visual defects. And in a few cases the picture degraded altogether into undifferentiated fuzz, unless I intentionally erased them at some point. As far as I can tell, there’s no pattern explaining what survived intact and what didn’t.
Old videotapes break. In half a dozen instances, rewinding an ancient tape to the beginning caused it to fly right off the takeup spool, presumably because the adhesive which kept it stuck in place had dried up. The first time this happened, the tape in question held my recording of the TV broadcast of a 1986 MLB playoff game I attended in person, and I deeply mourned its loss.
But they’re easy to fix. Turns out that the web is full of tutorials for unscrewing a videocassette and using sticky tape to repair its innards. A few minutes of study, and I was an expert. (When I had similar problems with old audio cassettes, I’d been forced to ship them off to a specialist.)
YouTube is like a giant collection of VHS tapes. A surprising percentage of the items I taped decades ago are on YouTube, thanks to other folks who recorded them back then. It’s true that bad YouTube looks even worse than bad ancient VHS, but it’s tempting to just watch it there rather than play digital preservationist with my own copies.
But it isn’t comprehensive. Some of my rescued video isn’t on YouTube and will never come out on Blu-Ray: random old specials, local programming, PBS pledge breaks. What are the chances that I possess the only copies in the wild of some of this material?
Getting rid of VHS tapes is a nightmare. One of the reasons I digitized my cassettes was so I could get rid of the tapes. Then I discovered that magnetic tape is one of the planet’s least recyclable materials. At the start of my project, I knew of one local recycling firm that was willing to take videotapes; by the end of the effort, it had stopped accepting them. Another company would grudgingly deal with them—and charge me a buck apiece for doing so—but I’ve been disassembling the tapes myself and putting the plastic shells with recycling and the tape itself with trash. (Wish me luck: I have two grocery bags of tapes left to go.)
They don’t make VHS/DVD decks anymore. Or at least the one I bought from Amazon in 2010 for $162 now costs $789, as if demand now outstrips remaining supply. At one point, mine seemed on the verge of conking out, and I feared I’d have to end my project prematurely; it snapped back to life after I ran a cleaning cassette (still available!) through it.
There’s always a missing tape. From the time I began all this, I was looking forward to finding my tape of a 100th birthday dinner held in 1990 for the great animator Grim Natwick. As far as I know, it was never widely distributed, and hasn’t made its way onto the Internet. My copy remains missing–and if I find it in 2035 or thereabouts, I just hope I still have a way to watch it.
More stuff by me
It’s been awhile since my last newsletter, so I have a backlog of stories to share with you. I was particularly happy to have the opportunity to write a sprawling piece about Evernote; five years ago, I did one about the state of the company as of then and wasn’t ecstatic over the edited results as they appeared in print. This time, I got to give proper attention to Stepan Pachikov, who provided handwriting-recognition technology for Apple’s Newton and came away from the experience with the idea that became Evernote.
Inside Evernote’s brain
Watch Evernote’s founder, age 14, share his unlikely dream
How Slack’s search finally got good
For Google’s G Suite, getting down to business is paying off
Watch Apple reveal the Newton’s wonders—mobile faxing!—in 1993
Amiga, Warhol, Debbie Harry: The ultimate 1980s tech keynote
You haven’t seen this 1990 Steve Jobs video, but should
Time to send this issue to press. Thanks for reading, and feel free to drop me a line at See you soon, I hope.
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Harry McCracken

A roundup of technology-related stuff I'm writing, reading, and remembering.

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