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Data Storage Science

Tape Disintegration Threatens Historical Records, But Chemistry Can Help (nautil.us) 76

An anonymous reader writes: Modern storage methods are designed with longevity in mind. But we haven't always had the scientific knowledge or the foresight to do so. From the late 60s to the late 80s, much of the world's cultural history was recorded on magnetic tapes. Several decades on, those tapes are disintegrating, and we're faced with the permanent loss of that data. "The Cultural Heritage Index estimates that there are 46 million magnetic tapes in museums and archives in the U.S. alone—and about 40 percent of them are of unknown quality. (The remaining 60 percent are known to be either already disintegrated or in good enough condition to be played.)" Fortunately, researchers have worked out a method to determine which copies are recoverable. They "combined a laptop-sized infrared spectrometer with an algorithm that uses multivariate statistics to pick up patterns of all the absorption peaks." Here's the abstract from their research paper. "As the tapes go through the breakdown reaction, the chemical changes give off tiny signals in the form of compounds, which can be seen with infrared light—and when the patterns of reactions are analyzed with the model, it can predict which tapes are playable."
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Tape Disintegration Threatens Historical Records, But Chemistry Can Help

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Our young men have not died in vain, ...
    The tapes have recorded their names.

  • Cryogenic storage (Score:3, Interesting)

    by frnic ( 98517 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @06:48PM (#50951945)

    Freeze them all and wait until a 3d Printer can scan and reconstruct them at the atomic level...

    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

      The freezing process may do unrepairable harm. I'm assuming you're saying that in jest but, just in case... I'm not entirely sure that the freezing and thawing would be conducive to data retention/preservation. I am, of course, not an expert on the subject. It just seems unlikely that the process would not harm the medium.

    • Freeze them all and wait until a 3d Printer can scan and reconstruct them at the atomic level...

      My Quantegy tapes say to store between 4-32 degrees C (40-90 F). RMG and ATR don't seem to specify a temperature range, but I suspect cryogenic storage is going to do very bad things to the plastic. Also note that temperature does have effects on magnetism - e.g. the Curie point. Effects of low temperatures I don't know about offhand.

  • Just try, if they're playable great. If not, then... what? Here's the paper on which something once was written but is now gone, what's the point of that?

    • by suutar ( 1860506 )

      the problem is that reading them to see if they're readable puts more wear on them. If you're ready to transfer the data to something else, that's fine, but if you're just trying to determine which to try first and which to not even bother, it's less useful (and possibly more time consuming).

  • by cirby ( 2599 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @06:57PM (#50951983)

    I ran into a related issue about 25 years ago.

    I was working in a college media library, and there were several stacks (over 70 tapes in total) of 2" reel-to-reel video tape from the 1960s and 1970s - recordings off air from Public Television, mostly. Some of them were of local shows nobody even seemed to remember, and others were from live performances at the Dallas station or of live feeds from PBS. There was a live Alvin Ailey dance troupe local show from the late 1960s, if I recall correctly.

    The problem was that they were recorded in a rare two-inch format - and only four machines that used it were ever even built (no, it wasn't 2" quadruplex, there were still lots of those at the time). I couldn't find a working machine, and the only one I could dig up was missing major parts (like the heads). So unless someone builds a new one from scratch just to read those tapes, all of that is going to disappear - if it hasn't already.

    • couldnt the tape be still framed one at a time in a modern scanning format to bring it back? (the video portion at least) im not sure how to pull the audio but being analog wouldnt there be a way to pull that as well?

      not pretty and much harder 25 years ago, but there seems there is some kind of solution today no?
      • by Tapewolf ( 1639955 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @07:48PM (#50952219)

        couldnt the tape be still framed one at a time in a modern scanning format to bring it back? (the video portion at least) im not sure how to pull the audio but being analog wouldnt there be a way to pull that as well?

        The audio would be pretty easy to pull off - it's going to be a straight linear audio track so you could probably just stick it in a regular 24-track studio recorder. Pulling the video is the hard part because practically all 2" video machines use a segmented scanning technique with the head-wheel angled at 90 degrees to the tape. If these are helical scan, the tracks are going to be laid down at 15 degrees or something weird like that, and you'd need to build a custom video head for it. Maybe it's possible to take a C-format head and machine a suitable drum for it, I don't know.

        Earlier I asked if it was an IVC recorder - however, reading it again he said that only 4 existed so I'm pretty sure they were recorded on an Ampex 8000, a 1961 helical scan machine that Ampex made prototypes of but never went into full production with or something. So yes, that's going to be a rare bird indeed.

        • I didn't remember it as being an Ampex, but it might have been the VR-8000. The timeline's about right.

          I found a photo online, and that looks like the photo of the one from back then.

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          Maybe the video could be reconstructed digitally. If the tape was scanned with a normal 90 degree head a computer could probably take that data and reconstruct the helical scan signal from it. Obviously it would need a lot of over-sampling and processing to produce good results, but it might be easier than trying to build something.

      • by cirby ( 2599 )

        That solution might work - but it would have to work on possibly-already-dead tape from the 1960s and 70s (which is often turning into dust already). There's a lot of archive stuff that's been sitting in old storage rooms for decades that's pretty much just a random pile of chemicals by now.

        There's also a real possibility that they all got thrown away after I left - since there was nothing to play them on (and not much chance of a replacement at that point), it wouldn't surprise me.

        A side note: this same li

    • Was it an IVC machine, out of interest?

      • by cirby ( 2599 )

        Nope. It was some weird experimental machine, the IVC was relatively popular in comparison. Like I said, only four built, ever. Wasn't compatible with ANYTHING.

        I can't remember the manufacturer, but it wasn't any of the big names.

    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

      I could have sworn that I saw a documentary that was about preservation of old media. It was at, I believe, the Smithsonian? They were not just doing preservation but also some pretty advanced recovery and yes, it was expensive. However, one of the machines was - and I'm no expert, able to read from tape of any width as I recall. It has some electronic device that it moved over and then they appeared to be using custom software and error correction? They also had light and weren't actually using the light t

  • by Snotnose ( 212196 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @07:02PM (#50952011)
    Thank god, I had some awesome BASIC skillz back then that I though were gone for good.
    • I just recovered a VIC-20 tape on which I wrote a fairly decent game in BASIC. What is funny to some is fun for others.
    • Thank god, I had some awesome BASIC skillz back then that I though were gone for good.

      Have the tepes finished loading your program yet?

    • by thogard ( 43403 )

      There are programs that will convert mp3 from cassette tape recordings into the raw bit stream and back to the audio again. That means you can plug your mp3 player into the cassette port of your TRS-80/IBM-PC/Vic or Apple and load the programs.

      Can anyone read 9 track tapes in Melbourne Oz? I have one that needs read before all the bits go bad. Its a 6250cpi for maybe upto about 175 mbytes.

      • by KGIII ( 973947 )

        I've an old-school geek friend in Cann River, out off of Prince's Highway. I don't know if they've got the equipment to do so but, if you want, I can ask them? I'm 100% positive that, if he has it, there'd be no charge involved. So, if it's close enough, I can ask on your behalf. I'm sure he'd be happy to have the project, he's retired and has a whole bunch of old equipment - including early stand-up arcade games and whatnot.

        Is this, specifically, what you mean:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

        If so then, b

  • Is this like, 12" laptop sized or 17" laptop sized?

  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @07:13PM (#50952067)
    buh-bye.
  • Bullshit. Citation required. Modern storage methods are designed to be cheap.

  • by presidenteloco ( 659168 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @07:32PM (#50952169)

    A technical and logistical and financial project whose primary goal is longevity (in the multi-hundred-year sense) of that which it stores.
    It should not be accomplished by individual media that are designed to last.
    Rather it should use network redundancy cleverly and have protocols designed to ensure enough geographically distributed copies always exist.
    It would have to carefully consider "readability, interpretability" assurances, such as very standard simple formats and protocols, and the methodology of storing the displaying / interpreting environment and code as well as the data. Emulated 1980s arcade games, now available and playable online, are good examples of this.
    Sort of an Internet Archive on steroids. Crowdfunded?

  • It sounds like chemistry is what got us into this problem to begin with.
  • M-Disk (Score:4, Insightful)

    by godel_56 ( 1287256 ) on Tuesday November 17, 2015 @08:18PM (#50952407)

    The Blu Ray version of M-Disk might be worth a look, as they're supposed to last for 1000 years. Also "backup" a spare drive that's capable of reading them.

    If not I suggest printing all the data out on boxes of blue and white stripey paper.

    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

      Hmm... Wasn't there talk of being able to store data, permanently, in crystals? It popped up on /. quite a while back. I don't think I've seen anything about it in years.

      Hmm... Looks like it was back in 2013 actually. I thought it was a bit further back than that? Anyhow, if you've never seen anything about it:
      http://physicsworld.com/cws/ar... [physicsworld.com]

      I have no idea where it currently resides, as far as progress goes, in the development stages or commercial viability so it may be vaporware.

  • Kept it 7 years, it's going in the dump next month, this is the final offer. Primarily NYT 1970-2000
  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Wednesday November 18, 2015 @04:18AM (#50953705)

    A HDD is good for maybe 5-10 years, but USB-sticks, unpowered SSDs and writable optical media may become unreadable after as little as a year. Unless you keep several redundant copies and verify and re-copy regularly, you are going to lose that data. The one readily-available exception is, surprisingly, archival-grade _tape_.

    This basically shows that the story writers have really no clue what they are talking about.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Archival grade BluRay or M-DISC will be better than tape. Aside from anything else, it can be read back without contacting the media at all, and is designed for very long term storage. It's also very likely to be readable decades in the future with commonly available hardware. Consider that CDs are over 33 years old and still easily readable on commodity hardware. Getting compatible tape drives is likely to be harder and more expensive.

      • by gweihir ( 88907 )

        That is complete BS. First, all reputable data recovery outfits will for the foreseeable future have the respective drives available and copy fees are not actually high. Second, the newer generations of these drives read the old tape generations. And third, if "archival" grade BlueRay turns out like all the other consumer crap "archival" media, even getting 10 years out of them reliably will be a stretch. And M-DISC? Comes from as single vendor and their claims are so obviously vastly over-blown that anybod

    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      I still have the earliest CD-R's from my university days, still perfectly readable. And that was the era of 2x read on CDROM and 1x write if you were lucky, no such thing as RW back then. And you bought the cheapest disks you could find because they cost a fortune, so I wasn't buying those gold-layered things, just the cheapest green-or-purple dye things from wherever had them in stock (pretty much pre-online ordering).

      I have about 50-60 disks, each two copies because of the scare stories, and they all re

      • by gweihir ( 88907 )

        What you completely misunderstand is that an archival medium must be _reliable_. Sure, some batches of CD-R live very long and some HDDs do too. But others do not and there is no way to tell beforehand.

  • I want them alive. No disintegrations!
  • "Tape Disintegration Threatens Historical Records... From the late 60s to the late 80s, much of the world's cultural history was recorded on magnetic tapes." Good heavens! Are the historical records of the early Star Trek episodes in danger?

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