By Duncan Harrison, Audio Preservation Engineer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage
Recently I have been working on digitising a collection of oral history interviews which detail memories of Brighton in the early 20th century. The recordings, mostly made during the late 1970s, are held on 83 cassettes and typically contain just 20 or so minutes of audio on a single side of the tape. On paper this is a very simple collection to digitise – short in length and held on a format which is generally quite easy to work with.
Working my way through these cassettes I was instantly fascinated by the detailed accounts describing life in Brighton 100 years ago. About halfway through the collection was a small group of 6 cassettes I was particularly looking forward to digitising entitled ‘Brighton Working Class History 1890-1914’.
When I reached the first of this group I noticed that the physical condition of the item was showing more notable signs of wear and age than the other cassettes I had digitised so far. I spot checked the audio quality at a few different points on the tape but thankfully didn’t notice any issues. After rewinding the tape to begin digitisation however, I encountered a problem – the tape was no longer playing and could not be wound any further than its starting position either within the cassette player or by hand.
I carefully unscrewed the cassette shell to investigate and straight away saw that the small piece of removable plastic which locks the tape leader into the supply reel had come loose and lost grip of the strand.
I attempted to simply fit the pieces back together but the components had become brittle and bent out of shape over many years, snapping easily as I tried to reattach the leader.
The best solution to this issue was to replace the reel, but in an age where cassette tapes are considered an obsolete media, obtaining a replacement is not as simple as placing a quick order online. Instead I delved into my own cassette collection at home and selected a number of items I didn’t mind being sacrificed for parts. The following day a replacement reel was taken from a TDK c90 cassette which, as you can see from the image below, remains fully intact and relatively unmarked by age.
Reattaching the tape leader to the new reel can be quite a fiddly job! The components are small and the tape wound onto the opposite take up reel will often begin to unspool if you aren’t careful. If you find yourself undergoing a similar job try gently weighing down the spooled tape with a small (and non-magnetic!) object to keep it in place while you thread the leader along the guide rollers and attach the it to the supply reel. With a bit of practice and patience it’ll soon become easy. I also took the opportunity to replace the magnetic shield and pressure pad in this cassette as the old ones had become quite badly rusted and decayed.
Finally I screwed the cassette shell back in place and the item was ready for digitisation!
To some extent all digital preservation is a balancing act between identifying the jobs that need to be done and judging what skills, time and resources can be realistically directed toward doing them. Only four cassettes in this collection needed to have one or both reels replaced in order to be digitised but we do not know if the task would be as straightforward in another year, or in five, or in twenty. Cases such as these may seem small on their own but in their simplicity they demonstrate why Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is such an important project as we seek to digitally preserve as many sound collections as possible before the skill, time and resources required to do so become unavailable.
Were it not for a project like UOSH and the work it allows our hubs to do, it might be that the memories contained within these cassettes and thousands of others like them would simply never be heard again.