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Digital Preservation

Obsolete Media Highlight: U-matic Tapes

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Have you ever had a day at work where the stars align, fortune unexpectedly smiles on you, and something great happens? We had a day like that yesterday . . . almost.

One of the U-matic tapes found at the Library. Although it reads "Impeachment of Andrew Johnson," we suspect it's from the 1970s, not the 1860s.

One of the U-matic tapes found at the Library. Although it reads “Impeachment of Andrew Johnson,” we suspect it’s from the 1970s, not the 1860s.

GHL staff discovered a small stash of old U-matic tapes from the 1970s and 1980s, tapes that we’d weeded from our collection years ago but hadn’t actually gotten rid of. We marveled at the old U-matic tape’s bulky containers and dorky instructions*. Some staff reminisced about using U-matic tapes back in the day, while others were baffled by the aesthetics of this plastic-brick technology. We scratched our heads for a day, trying to figure out what to do with the tapes. The library doesn’t have a U-matic player and we figured the tapes should probably go into to our Obsolete Media Museum as a warning against failing to migrate resources off aging electronic media.

The inside of the U-matic player, with the top cover removed. The tape is inserted from the right, and the tape should be pulled around the central cylinder.

The inside of the Archives’ new U-matic player, with the top cover removed. Tapes are inserted from the right, and the tape should be pulled around the central cylinder.

On a lark, we called down to Matthew Waehner at the State Archives to see if the Archives happened to have a U-matic player. Lo and behold! They did! Not only that, but they’d just–JUST–gotten the player and they were dying to know if it actually worked. The problem was that they didn’t have any U-matic tapes they could test it with. A perfect match!

As you may (or may not) know, U-matic tapes were early video tapes from the 1970s. The U-matic format was the first widely used videotape packaged within a cassette container, replacing the widespread use of reel-to-reel tapes in video production. Today, they are known as physically unable and their playback machines are notoriously finicky. Our hopes were not very high.

In fact, Archives warned me that they were pretty sure the U-matic player wouldn’t work at all. It might even eat our tape up and destroy it. When the Archives team turned the machines on, it made a sad sort of moan with an abrupt end, which wasn’t a good sign.

When Archives turned on the U-matic player, it made a sad sort of moan (rumble?).

Jim Willard (Historic Sites) and Linda Fox (Archives, photo lab technician) gathered around while Matt tried the first tape. To our giddy surprise, the machine actually took the tape and didn’t destroy it! We were very impressed. Only problem, the player wasn’t actually pulling the tape from the cassette, and pressing the play button did nothing (you can hear Jim asking “Did it wrap around the head?”).

“No waaaay! It took it, Jim. . . . Tapes go inside of it.” – Matt

We may be able to fix the machine, or perhaps we’ll have more good luck and a working player will fall in our laps. In any case, we’ll keep you posted!

Matt Waehner and Jim Willard investige the innards of U-matic player, determining why the tape isn't being taken up.

Matt Waehner and Jim Willard investige the innards of U-matic player, determining why the tape isn’t being taken up.


For more resources about obsolete media, check out these posts from our blog archive:

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Preservation Week 2015: State Archives and Government and Heritage Library

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pwk_logoThe Government and Heritage Library part of the State Library of North Carolina and State Archives are celebrating the ways they help preserve information whether created physically or digitally. It’s part of National Preservation Week, April 26 – May 2, which highlights the role libraries, archives and other cultural institutions play in preserving our information. A week of activities await you.

A social media campaign, daily preservation trivia question, exhibits and other activities are available. Discover activities from the State Archives here and from the State Library here. The State Archives and State Library are located at 109 E. Jones St., where they will offer Preservation Week programs on site: (more…)

How to digitize your photo negatives: Interview with Mathew Waehner

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Mathew Waehner, head of the State Archives of North Carolina Photography Lab, scanning negatives on a special scanner.

Mathew Waehner, head of the State Archives of North Carolina Photography Lab, scanning negatives on a special scanner that uses a light to shine through the film.

October is doubly honored this year, being both Family History Month and Archives Month, and we’ve been thrilled to see so much buzz about preserving family history! One of the most common types of questions we see is how to digitize family materials, especially photos. In anticipation of this Saturday’s free Family History Fair in Raleigh, I sat down with Mathew Waehner, head of the State Archives’ Photography Lab, to talk about the ins and outs of digitizing photo negatives, and why someone might want to digitize a negative instead of its corresponding photo print. 

You been scanning photo negatives for the State Archives for a while, right?

Matt: Yes, I’ve been with the State Archives for nine years, film digitization is the number one thing I’ve done.  I’ve scanned over 100,000 historic negatives!

Lots of people are using their home scanner to digitize their old family photos and put them online. Can they also digitize negatives at home?

Matt: It is certainly possible to digitize negatives at home, but most scanners can’t handle negatives at all, and there are some really bad negative scanners at the low end of the price range  (there might be some good ones too).  A film scanner is a significant investment, and scanning film takes more time than prints.

What kind of special equipment do they need?

Matt: The main piece of special equipment needed is a film scanner!  Look for one that has an optical resolution over 2000 DPI, preferably around 4000. This is important because film contains microscopic detail, it is designed to be enlarged.  Scanners may advertise a “maximum resolution” higher than the optical resolution, but that is just extra data interpolated out of the optical resolution — in other words, the scanner makes up detail that it can’t see in order to reach its advertised maximum resolution. (High resolution is not important for print scanning, most prints don’t have much detail beyond what is visible to the naked eye.)

Also, look at the Maximum density or DMax of the scanner — a good scanner has a max density around 4, 3 is decent, and poor quality scanners don’t list any at all.  This is a measure of how dark of a negative the device can read.  Every print has a limited range of tones between white and black, but because negatives are designed to have light projected through them, they have a larger range of tones between white and black.  Originally, negatives were adjusted during printing, but now we do it digitally, and a scanner with a larger dynamic range enables much more adjustment.

Also, you will need gloves (cotton or nitrile), because touching negatives with fingers can cause permanent damage.

What difference in quality should they expect when scanning negatives vs. photo prints?

Matt: If you have a quality scanner, scanning negatives can always produce better results than scanning prints, as the negative is the original recording of the image.  The results can be better both in terms of detail and sharpness, and the negative also offers more room for adjustment of contrast and color.  Also, archival sleeves to house the negatives are a great idea. Other plastic sleeves aren’t bad but they will eventually degrade and stick to the film.  Glassine paper is acidic, so it should be replaced, or at least separated from the film.

Most people probably have 35 mm film at home, but what about people with other still-photography film formats?

Historic film negative formats

Historic film formats. Image source:

Matt: Yes, 35mm film was pretty standard for consumers starting in the 1960s, but there are many other sizes and shapes of film.  For one thing, slides and transparencies were very common for vacation photos and also for commercial use.  Most 35mm scanners can handle mounted slides.  In the middle of the twentieth century 2.25 inch roll film was common, it persisted longer in professional applications. The length of the dimensions of the exposure on the negative could vary.  Sheet film was common in the early part of the twentieth century, it can record an extremely high amount of detail.  You should check your collection before acquiring a scanner, if possible, to determine which type of scanner you need.

Do you have any tips for working with old or brittle negatives?

Roy Boshi, Photographic glass negative of a horse and carriage. Maybe a Collodion negative

Glass plate negative. Image source: Roy Boshi, Wikimedia Commons

Matt: Old film does need to be handled with care, but consider how much use it is if it isn’t scanned or printed somehow.  Best practice is usually to scan it at high resolution once at high enough resolution that it won’t need to be scanned again.  If you are working with glass plate negatives, brush dust off of them before scanning- they often have tiny sharp fragments of other negatives on them that can scratch film and damage your scanner.  You may encounter film that is bubbled or warped (google “Vinegar syndrome” for pictures), it scans surprisingly well.

8 things you can do right now to preserve your digital files

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Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Make a list of your essential digital records.

Your “essential records” are the records that protect you and your family’s health, identity, and financial resources. These are the records that would be in your safety deposit box if they were paper, and they are the records you would first save in an emergency. Know what and where your digital essential records are. Tell another family member how to access them in an emergency.

Check your backups

Have you been backing your files up? If so, great! Go check your backups and see that everything is in its place, where you expect it to be. Open a few files and check that they are what you expect them to be and that you can still open them.

Organize your backups

If your backups have started feeling like your junk drawer, it may be is definitely time to organize them. Evolving backup systems may have left you with your digital materials spread out over several backups: hard drives, cloud backup, maybe even a few CDs. If it’s gotten so disorganized that you can’t find what you’re looking for easily, then your backups aren’t working the way they should.

Look for stray files

Try to think of where you might have any files that haven’t yet been backed up. Check your phone, your camera (the memory card and the camera itself), old thumb drives, your work computer.

Add your personal website to the Wayback Machine

The Wayback Machine is the free web archive of the non-profit Internet Archive. First check to see if your site is already in their archive. If it’s not, add it. Just make sure that you don’t have robots.txt or settings that don’t allow crawlers.

Clean your desktop, download folders

Everyone has their favorite place to send “miscellaneous” and temporary files. Files seem to just collect there, and once in, nothing gets deleted (kind of like the Pacific garbage patch). Be brave, clean it out.

Rename your files

If you haven’t already, come up with a file naming scheme and stick to it! Check out this best practices document or this online tutorial to help get you started.

Think of one more thing on your own (and do it)

Now that you’ve been spending so much time with your digital assets, you’re bound to have noticed at least one more thing you can do to better preserve them. This kind of analysis is great. It’s how we develop systems to keep our stuff in order.

This blog is a service of the State Library of North Carolina, part of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Blog comments and posts may be subject to Public Records Law and may be disclosed to third parties.