Technology changes quickly, as we all know. However, a short article this week surprised me. It seems that U.S. government agencies are being forced to stop recording meetings, talking books, and other archival documents on audio tape. The reason is simple: they can no longer buy recording tapes!
Quantegy, one of the last U.S. suppliers of analog tapes, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January and closed its only U.S. plant. Quantegy was the primary supplier of tapes to federal agencies, but now that supply line is in jeopardy. Agencies must either modernize, a costly and risky process of switching to digital storage media, or look overseas for a source of high-quality analog tapes.
The National Archives and records Administration is already switching from Quantegy tape to WAV files saved to digital media, such as CDs. "Audiotapes are not becoming old-fashioned," said Les Waffen, an audiovisual archivist in NARA's special media division. "They're just not going to be available anymore."
NARA officials have begun saving audio recordings, such as the CIA's radio monitoring of POWs and MIAs during the Vietnam War and oral arguments before the Supreme Court, as digital recordings and WAV files. NARA officials anticipate that their audiotape supplies will be depleted in three to four months.
Gene DeAnna, acting head of the recorded sound section at the Library of Congress, seems pleased with the change. "The largest use of audiotapes has been to reformat fragile sound recordings to tape," DeAnna said. "We are not using audiotapes to reformat anymore, and it's a good thing."
In the past year, library officials have purchased nine digital audio workstations for creating WAV files at a cost of less than $10,000 per workstation.
Digital has a higher resolution than tape, DeAnna explained. The library has not stopped using or acquiring audiotapes, but the tapes are stored in boxes that are deteriorating. Quantegy used to supply archival containers, DeAnna said, but now library officials must look elsewhere.
NASA also relies on high-quality tapes. The agency's contractor, United Space Alliance, was awaiting confirmation last month for its order of 20 Quantegy tape reels for future space shuttle missions. NASA officials use tape reels to store temperature and pressure information from sensors embedded throughout the vehicle and inside its wings, tail, and skin. They have used tape reels on space shuttle missions since the start of the program.
"It's kind of like a rearview mirror - we look at it after the flight," said Kyle Herring, a NASA spokesman. Herring added that the 20 reels on order are supposed to last through the projected length of the space shuttle program, to about 2010.