Agencies prepare for Digital Age

Shortage of magnetic tape forces feds to look for other storage media

A shortage of professional-grade tape is prompting government agencies such as the National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress and NASA to switch to digital media.

Quantegy, one of the last U.S. suppliers of analog tapes, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January and closed its only U.S. plant. Quantegy was the primary supplier of tapes to federal agencies, but now that supply line is in jeopardy. Agencies must either modernize, a costly and risky process of switching to digital storage media, or look overseas for a source of high-quality analog tapes.

But audiotape is not outdated. NARA officials will reluctantly switch from Quantegy tape to WAV files saved to digital media, such as CDs. "Audiotapes are not becoming old-fashioned," said Les Waffen, an audiovisual archivist in NARA's special media division. "They're just not going to be available anymore."

NARA officials have begun saving audio recordings, such as the CIA's radio monitoring of POWs and MIAs during the Vietnam War and oral arguments before the Supreme Court, as analog recordings and WAV files. NARA officials anticipate that their audiotape supplies will be depleted in three to four months.

"The beauty of analog is it's simple and it works," Waffen said. But NARA is being forced into the Digital Age, he said. NARA officials will stop using audiotape unless they can find new sources, perhaps in Europe, Japan or India.

Waffen said the quality of those tapes is unknown. But he has other concerns about the cost, longevity and reliability of digital media, especially under fluorescent lighting conditions. NARA's storage costs have tripled since the agency started saving WAV files on a server, and digital storage requires a support staff of information technology professionals.

Gene DeAnna, acting head of the recorded sound section at the Library of Congress, does not share those reservations about digital preservation. "The largest use of audiotapes has been to reformat fragile sound recordings to tape," DeAnna said. "We are not using audiotapes to reformat anymore, and it's a good thing."

In the past year, library officials have purchased nine digital audio workstations for creating WAV files, at a cost of less than $10,000 per workstation.

Digital has a higher resolution than tape, DeAnna said. But he acknowledges the copyright and storage issues that accompany digital media use. The infrastructure to safely store and retrieve vast quantities of WAV files has to be flawless, he said.

Another problem for the library is potential copyright violations. Researchers in the library's reading rooms can easily break copyright law by saving the files to a CD or e-mailing the files to themselves. Protecting copyrights is "doable, but it's expensive and requires new equipment," DeAnna said.

The library has not stopped using or acquiring audiotapes, but the tapes are stored in boxes that are deteriorating. Quantegy used to supply archival containers, DeAnna said, but now library officials must look elsewhere.

NASA also relies on high-quality tapes. The agency's contractor, United Space Alliance, was awaiting confirmation last month for its order of 20 Quantegy tape reels for future space shuttle missions.

NASA officials use tape reels to store temperature and pressure information from sensors embedded throughout the vehicle and inside its wings, tail and skin. They have used tape reels on space shuttle missions since the start of the program.

"It's kind of like a rearview mirror — we look at it after the flight," said Kyle Herring, a NASA spokesman. The 20 reels on order are supposed to last through the projected length of the space shuttle program, to about 2010, he said.


Tips on tapes

Magnetic tape has the virtue of simplicity without the added cost, longevity and reliability concerns that some archivists associate with digital media.

Here are tips from Quantegy for preserving magnetic tapes:

Store tapes in dust-proof containers.

Store tapes vertically, never stacked.

Never place tapes on top of computer equipment.

For long-term storage, make sure the room is 65 degrees and has 40 percent relative humidity.

Clean entire tape path often using lint-free cloth and appropriate solvent.

Source: Quantegy

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