Object Thursday: Reading the Unreadable – 2 inch Quad Videotape in the Stacks

In our column, Object Thursday, we highlight many of the cool collection items that we care for and make accessible to researchers. The one common thread to these posts has been that the objects themselves are eye readable, meaning that you do not need a machine to translate the information that lies within the object.

Today’s post is all about the machine readable object. Held within our Special Collections is a myriad of audiovisual formats that require a playback device to transmit the data to the end user. All of these formats are on obsolete media that necessitate immediate migration to a new digital file format.
Amongst the vast Film Archive at the RIHS is a collection of approximately 300 two inch reel to reel Quadruplex videotapes.

The Society acquired these from local television stations, WJAR TV 10 and WPRI TV 12. On these reels of magnetic media lie the visual and sound history of Rhode Island from circa 1960’s – 1980’s. This collection includes, amongst other subjects, 30 second commercials for the long defunct Almacs Grocery store chain and political ads that feature Edward D. DiPrete and Lincoln Almond.
Political spots
2″ Quadruplex reel to reel analog videotape was introduced in 1956 and was developed by the Ampex Corporation as a cost effective way to time shift television programming for airing on the west coast. Up until this time, television broadcasters relied on film kinescopes which were more costly and time consuming to produce. The Quad format was in use into the early 1980’s.
Standard reel sizes were 6.5, 10.5 and 12.5 inches and typically came in cardboard or hard plastic shipping containers. The larger of the reels used metal flanges and weighed up to 30lbs. The majority of the tapes in the RIHS collection are the smaller 6.5 inch reel.
12.5 inch reel
12.5 inch reel with metal flanges
Shipping container for 12.5 inch reel of 2inch Quad videotape
Shipping container for 12.5 inch reel of 2inch Quad videotape
6.5 inch plastic reel with plastic flanges
6.5 inch plastic reel – Noel for Senate, Date recorded: 9/2/76, Channel 12 WPRI-TV
According to the Videotape Identification and Assessment Guide published by Texas Commission on the Arts, 2004 and VideoPreservation Website, Quad tape is critically endangered and immediate re-mastering is recommended through a qualified vendor. The preferred method of re-mastering is to create digital files of the content.
Unless you have one of these videotape recorders (VTR) that is in working order and employ a video engineer to operate and maintain the machine you will not be able to read what is embedded in the magnetic particles of the videotape. The solution is to send selected tapes to a qualified video reformatting company.
Ampex VR2000
Found at http://www.lionlamb.us/quad/tour.html

The importance of re-formatting analog audio-visual content has never been clearer. The hardware and expertise to operate and maintain playback 2″ reel to reel videotape machines is becoming less and less with each passing day. According to “A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections, 2005“:

“The condition of almost half the 86 million film reels, videos, DVDs, records, cassettes, CDs, and MP3s in public collections is unknown, leaving them in probable jeopardy.”

One glaring example of the seriousness of the problem at hand of saving our unique 20th century cultural heritage can be found here: Quadroplex Video Head Refurbishment.
Without a working video playback head, tapes cannot be migrated to a new format. And without reformatting, we risk losing an approximately 40 year chunk of moving image history that documents our social, political, religious, working and consumer lives.
Written by James DaMico, Special Collections Curator/Librarian

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