Our archives hold very large numbers of analog and physical digital recordings on obsolete audio and video formats that are actively degrading, some of which contain content with high research value. We have a relatively short time window to save these recordings. While film is comparatively more stable than audio and video, many film collections are showing signs of extreme color fade and degradation, which will make digitization much more challenging and costly in the future if not preserved now.
At Indiana University, we have documented over 670,000 analog and physical digital audio, video, and film objects on the Bloomington campus alone, of which 41% are unique or thought to be rare. These recordings are held in nearly 80 campus units on more than 50 media formats.
All analog and physical digital media objects are actively degrading, some catastrophically. Severity of degradation and the rate at which a recording deteriorates varies by format, the condition of any given recording, and storage conditions.
In today's digital world, all analog and physical digital recordings are now effectively obsolete. From a practical perspective, obsolescence means that it becomes more difficult and expensive to find working playback machines for the various formats that must be digitized. It also becomes more difficult to source spare parts to refurbish and repair legacy machines. As obsolescence deepens, the knowledge of how to repair old players becomes scarce. Even the knowledge and experience required to successfully play a deteriorating obsolete recording on a legacy playback machine fades away. Finally, tools and supplies needed to sustain the machines and the formats themselves vanish. Some media preservationists believe that there may not be enough working audio and video playback machines left to digitize everything currently held in archival vaults.
How much time do we have?
A number of media preservationists have stated that we have a 15-20 year window of opportunity to digitally preserve legacy audio and video recordings, but the rapidly increasing pace of obsolescence has likely shortened this timeframe. Some believe that the window of opportunity is closer to 10-15 years. One view of the endgame is that the combination of degradation and obsolescence will make it either impossible (degradation) or prohibitively expensive (obsolescence) to digitally preserve large holdings of audio and video recordings.