Manuscripts and Special Collections

Storing audio-visual and electronic media

Until the nineteenth century, information was recorded in a limited number of ways – mostly onto paper, parchment or canvas. Since the mid-nineteenth century many different types of new media have been invented, such as: 

  • Photographs (glass plates, daguerreotypes, negatives, black and white prints, colour prints, slides, microfilms and microfiches, digital formats such as jpeg)
    Sound (vinyl records, reel-to-reel tapes, cassette tapes, minidiscs, compact discs, digital formats such as mp3)
  • Moving images (cine film, videotape in multiple formats including Betamax and VHS, video disc, DVD, Blu-Ray, digital formats such as mp4)
  • Electronic files (emails, word-processed documents in various formats, databases and spreadsheets, web pages, and items stored on floppy discs, CDs, memory sticks, or online on sites like Flickr)

The challenges of caring for these materials are very great, as each media type has different storage needs. For instance, films and photographs should ideally be stored at a lower relative humidity than paper documents. There are specialist repositories for moving image film and videotape, for instance the Media Archive for Central England (MACE). Staff at these repositories have the technical equipment and expertise to look after these materials properly.

There are also a number of other problems associated with new media:

  • Many items need to be viewed or played on machines that are now obsolete.
  • Audio and video tapes are very vulnerable to spooling out and breaking, especially if they have not been played for a while, and it is common to find that sound and vision distorts or disappears.
  • Items stored on CD and DVD may also disappear or become unplayable.
  • Digital formats change regularly, so something saved in an old format might not be readable using modern software.
  • Even though photographic prints and slides are vulnerable to fading and colour loss if they are exposed to light, they are still considered a more stable medium over the long term than digital copies.
  • It is thought that about 5 years is the maximum amount of time something can be stored in a digital format before checking that the file can still be read, and if necessary ‘migrating’ it to a newer system.

Obsolete floppy disks

Obsolete floppy disks

However, new digital technology is an exciting and useful tool for archivists and other curators of older material. It enables us to make copies of vulnerable items (subject to copyright regulations), and gives us the possibility of making these copies available to a wide audience.

Some archive offices already have large collections of ‘born-digital’ material available to the public. ‘Born-digital’ is a term used for material that was originally created in digital form, generally from the 1990s onwards. One example is the collection of Electronic Records Online, at The National Archives.

You can help to safeguard your own media for the future by taking the following steps:

  • Make digital copies of photographs and of any audio-visual material that you want to keep and can still play (e.g. cassette tapes, home movies)
  • But remember that digital media needs to be properly managed – don’t be tempted to throw away the originals without careful thought about whether you really want to do that!
  • So for the moment you might want to continue printing out any particularly important digital photographs onto good quality photographic paper
  • Keep back-up copies on CDs, DVDs or preferably on an external hard drive
  • Check the copies regularly. If you find a problem, you might need to make a new copy or retrieve a back-up
  • Arrange your material in a logical way and use meaningful names for folders and files. That way, anyone else accessing your material will understand quickly what each folder contains. For instance, you could arrange digital photographs into folders based on the year and month the images were taken. Folders will sort logically if you use figures for months (e.g. ‘2010-08 photographs’, ‘2010-09 photographs’)
  • You cannot write on the back of digital photographs as you would do for prints, but it is helpful to have captions associated with the photographs in some way. You could give the photograph a filename that includes the date the photograph was taken and some words of description, but this could make your filenames too long. Alternatively, you could keep a word-processed text document containing captions in the same folder as the photographs it describes.
 Well-organised electronic filing system

A well-organised electronic filing system


Next page: Looking after important papers at home 

Manuscripts and Special Collections

Kings Meadow Campus
Lenton Lane
Nottingham, NG7 2NR

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 4565
fax: +44 (0) 115 846 8651