How long does magnetic tape last?

It’s a question I get asked many times – “I’ve found some old Beta tapes in our archive, are they still playable?”.

It’s a simple question, but unfortunately there is no straightforward answer.

 

The main factors on the lifespan of magnetic tapes are:

 

1. How were the tapes stored?

Tapes need to be stored in a cool and dry location, and preferably in an upright position (i.e. the tape width is flat to the shelf so as to discourage edge warping from the weight of the tape).

 

2. What format are the tapes?

Are there working machines that are still able to playback this format?  Many magnetic tape formats have gradually become obsolete and finding machines to use as a playback source can become a challenge!

 

3. Other Factors – Chemical composition

The Association of Moving Image Archivists  posts this information regarding magnetic tape loss:

“Although there have been numerous studies about tape longevity and stability that have produced valuable information, such as the work conducted by the National Media Lab in the mid-1990s, an accelerated aging test that produces meaningful quantitative data about magnetic media longevity does not exist. Hence, no method is known which will indicate the life expectancy of various brands and formulations of magnetic tape. Some experts state that generally magnetic tape “lasts” anywhere from ten to sixty years. Taken alone, the polyester basefilm (also called substrate or carrier) of videotape is estimated to last hundreds of years when stored properly in archival environmental conditions. However other components of videotape, such as binder components, are far less stable and thus form the weak link in the chain. Furthermore, equipment and format obsolescence may pose a greater threat to the life of a tape than the media degradation factors.”

So, the issue of whether a particular tape can still be played also depends on the chemistry of the back coating that was used in the first place.   Many tapes require cleaning with specialized equipment before they are able to be played back.

 

Final Thoughts

My advice if you’re planning to hold on to some magnetic tapes a little longer is store them in a cool and dry place.  Otherwise, consider transferring the content off the magnetic tapes to a low or lossless compression digital file format.

If you have any questions about your magnetic tape collection, please contact Flume Media Archiving for more information.