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Vol. 1 No. 9 November 2002

Saving Media from Extinction

What do whales and digitizing analog broadcast tapes have in common? A lot more than you'd think, explains Robert Robinson, head librarian for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. Robinson, who's heading up efforts to digitize some 120,000 reel-to-reel tapes dating back to the 1960s, says that tapes made prior to the mid-1970s were coated with whale oil. But in 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, forcing tape manufacturers to switch to polyurethane. Polyurethane, though, is no substitute for refined blubber, as it absorbs humidity. When you play the tape, the polyurethane builds up on the head and jams the drive mechanism. The result? "Tapes from the 60s and early 70s have held up pretty well," says Robinson, but later tapes are essentially unusable. Luckily, reel-to-reel tapes can be salvaged by baking them for eight hours at 125 degrees, and then converted to digital format in the next 30 days. So far, NPR has performed this rescue operation on tapes dating back to 1989. It is currently capturing them ...

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