Friday, December 11, 2015

On Preserving Star Wars Audio Tapes

       I always receive a shocked reaction (and sometimes outright anger) when I reveal that I have never seen Star Wars. I promise it's on my list, but training to become a public historian has taken up quite a bit of my time at the moment.

     But what I did recently learn about Star Wars is that to preserve the audio recordings of the original films, Hollywood engineers are baking the tapes as a method of preservation![1] I remember we had discussed this method in class, but it was intriguing to see this process was used on such a valuable piece of popular culture.

     Baking the audio reels helps to slow the process of "sticky-shed syndrome," a condition in which the glue that holds the magnetic tape together begins to come apart. Baking the reels at a low temperature helps to reactivate the magnetic bonds for a period of time, but it can do only do so much and is only sometimes effective. This is an issue faced at other archives as well, though I wonder about the precedents of this method. The Atlantic reported on this strange preservation case, citing other precedents in which The British Museum bakes the cuneiform tablets at over 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. While the Star Wars reels are baked at very low temperatures, it is an interesting measure to slow deterioration.

     In 2002 Jim Wheeler created the Videotape Preservation Handbook. In it, Wheeler describes the symptoms of "sticky-shed syndrome." A strange gummy film develops on the tape's surface, which over time, can begin to distort the film itself. Wheeler explains that the baking process should be repeated to continually solve the problem, but it is no permanent fix. [2]

     What is certainly interesting about this particular example is that science, archival preservation techniques, and popular culture all feed into one another. The deterioration process is for the time being inevitable, but measures are being taken to convert the film to other formats so that not all is lost.

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