Kilometres of magnetic tape reveal the richness of Tasmania’s history

image of film canisters in Tasmanian Archives

Over 5 000 collection items in the Tasmanian Archives are being digitised by a small team of archivists and digital services officers at Libraries Tasmania in a large project coordinated by Karin Haveman, Manager for Government Archives and Preservation.

The team, alongside external contractors, are tracking to complete the project well before a 2025 deadline – with the aim of digitally preserving all magnetic media material for future generations, and for most content to be accessible on the Libraries Tasmania catalogue and Libraries Tasmania YouTube channel from 2023.

So why the hurry?

In 2015, the National Film and Sound Archives (NFSA) published a paper (PDF here) outlining three key reasons why magnetic tape produced in the twentieth century is at risk. These are tape degradation, technical obsolescence, and loss of human expertise.   

What are magnetic tape formats?

Magnetic tape is a medium for magnetic recording, made of a thin, magnetisable coating on a long, narrow strip of plastic film. It was developed in Germany in 1928, based on magnetic wire recording. They can include VHS, Betacam, U-matic, PC floppy disks, CDs or audio cassettes.

Libraries Tasmania received funding from the Australia Government to start the Preservation and Digitisation project in 2020 with the aim of digitising the entire magnetic media collection at the Tasmanian Archives by 2025 at the very latest.

Thousands of items are now digitised and will be searchable on the Libraries Tasmania catalogue from 2023 onwards.

The significance of having online access to the Tasmanian Archives film and audio files can’t be underestimated – making these items discoverable online to anyone around the world is essential for the preservation of Tasmanian heritage and history. 

“Apart from the National Archives of Australia (NAA) and the NFSA, Libraries Tasmania is one of the libraries in Australia that has a larger audio-visual collection,” said Karin Haveman.

“Many libraries and archives would donate audio-visual collections to the NAA or the NFSA, a state government or national organisation. Libraries Tasmania is part of the state government, and so our collection is quite large. The Tasmanian Archives has kept all of the audio-visual collection (including original footage of the thylacine and Royal visits to Tasmania).

“The film archives bring a lot of richness to the Tasmanian people on how it was, and how things go … especially a landmark like Cadburys for Tasmania… [there was a film] showing the whole process of how the cocoa comes to us from the plantations in Gold Coast of North Africa, now Ghana, at the time when the exhibition ‘By Mountain and Sea: 100 Years of Cadbury’s at Claremont was showing in the State Library of Tasmania Reading Room. We [also] discovered a beautiful Lake Pedder film taken prior to the flooding that nobody had ever seen before … that footage is just beautiful.”

The digitisation process involved viewing and converting the material to digital format and storing the files in Preservica, a preservation files software application. The team also performed critical conservation work on the physical objects themselves, unpacking the films and audio reels, rehousing and cleaning them, before shelving carefully in the new Geilston Bay Repository housing the Tasmanian Archives.

You can look forward to exploring unseen footage when it is made available in early 2023 through the Libraries Tasmania catalogue, YouTube and other social media platforms. All Tasmanian Archives digitised material will be available to the public by request, with a small amount limited by copyright and other considerations.

Do you have magnetic tapes at home?

Magnetic-based tape in general has a life span of 10 to 20 years but can last much longer if stored in the right conditions.

If you have tapes produced in the twentieth century, consider asking a local vendor to digitise them.

Image credit: photo of Tasmanian Archives – photographer: Miu Lee