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Opening Pandora's box, or the video conservator's curse

A video-conservator is always a bit like the mythological Pandora. We often get a box, also known as magnetic tape, in front of us and don't know what is in it...

Sometimes there is a note stating the content, maybe some date, but in many cases I just fear that all the evils of the world will come out of it. Or at least a lot of gluey stuff that will give me a hard time…
So, to try and make my and other video-conservators work easier I will explain and illustrate what is involved in conserving vintage videotapes, from the point of view of a conservator working with small collections, specifically collections of video art. I will do so through the example of the work currently being undertaken at the New Media Conservation Department of the Bern University of the Arts BUA for the digitisation project of Jean Otths’ masters. Otth is one of the earliest swiss video artists. He kindly lent the HKB his open-reel masters, and we are now in the process of copying these tapes into digital video files.  
More concretely I will go into considerations on the kind and choice of masters, the sort of information that the owner of the collection should gather so that the results are the best, how we handle the tapes to be able to play them at all, a “normal copying process”, what kind of results can be expected, what sort of documentation you should expect/request when making copies of a tape and finally a short introduction to the options, advantages and disadvantages of the current media being used for preservation purposes.

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