How Necessary Is Rehousing Archival Audio & Video?

June 28, 2012

When I was first out of school I interviewed for a project archivist position with a long-standing acting school in New York. The interview was with the director of the school who, to understate it, was somewhat dramatic, and the whole thing felt more like an audition than an interview. It even started off with what seemed like an improv exercise. As soon as I sat down the director said, “Okay. You’re given a box of archival materials. It’s a mix of papers, tapes, maybe some books or photos. What do you do? Go.”

Being a freshly minted archivist I of course was cautious, describing how I would assess the contents and their arrangement in the box, and then deliberately and carefully remove them to begin identification and plan my approach.

At some point the director began waving her arm in the air, saying, “Stop stop stop. Why does everyone always say the same thing?!”


I didn’t get that job — very likely because I asked for a living wage — but I have frequently thought of that interview experience, wondering why that response would bother a non-archivist so much, but also wondering exactly why I said the same thing as everyone else.

The simple answer there is, of course, the result of my training in the standards and traditions of archiving. Not having a lot of practical experience at that point I hadn’t yet been confronted with the real world application of those standards beyond the idealism encased in ivied walls.

To be sure, standards and methodologies are necessary as reference points, but as with cooking, true skill comes in understanding not just the What, but the Why and How. It is the difference between being able to follow a recipe and being able to cook.

One area I’ve been looking into the Why is rehousing. I know MPLP-style processing has tried to limit this for paper materials from a workflow point of view, but the love for non-acidic and polypropelene enclosures is hard to break. Especially if they’re very small or custom made.

I understand the need for rehousing at the item/folder/box level for paper, photographs, and film materials. First, it helps store things on limited shelf space to have some regularity in their form and arrangement and can also provide some form of intellectual arrangement to aid discovery. Second, for things that last a long time, storing them in a way that promotes that extended longevity makes sense. If you can make a film last 100 years instead of 30, why not invest in that?

But audiotape and videotape present a number of issues here. Primary is the basic availability of materials. Archival (inert polypropylene) containers really only exist for VHS, audiocassettes, and 1/4″ open reel — essentially the widely adopted commercial formats that have existed in large quantities in lending libraries (beyond just archives). Without that use case, those containers would have likely never been produced in large quantities. The lack of options means that the most at risk tape formats (and those that will be at high risk in 10-20 years) do not have an option for rehousing for long term storage.

But is this actually a problem?

Planning for long term storage of 2″ Quad or 3/4″ U-matic may not be that worthwhile of an exercise. Many tape formats are at the point condition- or obsolesence-wise where near term reformatting is really the only option for preservation. A 1/2″ open reel videotape will not appreciatively gain from being placed in a new container.

This begs the question, then, of what the benefit is of rehousing audiocassettes, VHS, and 1/4″ open reel tape. Reformatting is an unavoidable activity. Is anything gained in the cost expenditure of equipment –> rehousing –> processing –> reformatting versus just reformatting? Physically speaking, does 3 years in polypropylene significantly counteract 45 years in acidic cardboard or vinyl? Is it worth it to spend $10,000 on plastic case rather than on reformatting or on playback equipment? Any practical experience or opinions on this issue out there?

—¬†Joshua Ranger