Protect your video and audio tapes, and floppy disks

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Video and audio tapes, such as VCR tapes and music cassettes share some common characteristics. Interestingly enough, they also have something in common with floppy disks. All are made from magnetic media. Magnetic media is composed of a polyester or polyethylene base with magnetic particles glued to it.  Video and audio tapes have a long strip of film wound on spools inside a cassette box. Floppy disks have a plastic platter inside them, which spins. Both the film and the platter are coated with magnetic particles made of ferrous oxide. These magnetic particles record and store information.

The glue, called the "binder," that holds the magnetic particles in place can be easily damaged from high levels of heat and humidity.  It can become soft and sticky, or it can become quite brittle. In tapes, soft sticky binder can glue the tape together, and gum up the player. In floppies, it prevents the platter from spinning.  Brittle binder flakes off the plastic base, taking the magnetic particles (and thus the information recorded on the particles) with it. 

Magnetic media can also be damaged by dirt and dust, which can create scratches that erase media. Dust also can damage tape playback heads and cause floppy disks readers to skip or lock up in an area of the disk.

Finger prints can lift magnetic particles off the base or cover the particles over. There is less likelihood of fingerprints or dust on a 3.5" floppy than on the older 5.25" disks, as a sliding cover hides the platter from sight. VCR cassettes also have a cover which protects the tape, while audio cassettes do not.

Magnetic media have a short life expectancy.  Careful treatment may increase their ability to be played to 30 years for tapes and, for disks, up to and even beyond 3 million passes. If your collection consists mostly of professional productions, cassettes or films that are still in print, buying a new copy is probably the best option.  For homemade, old, or out-of-print videotapes, cassettes, or floppies, proper storage and handling practices will prolong the life of the item.  Transferring the information from one tape or floppy to another one, or to an entirely different media such as a CD or DVD, is a very good idea, though it will not be a permanent form of preservation.  Proper environment, storage, and handling practices can prolong the life of magnetic media.


Temperature and humidity play a major role in the destruction of magnetic media. Extremely high temperatures cause the binders to break down and become either sticky or brittle. Sticky binders can break machines, while brittle binders will lose data. Extremely high humidity can warp the platter inside a floppy and stretch of video or audio tapes. Changes in temperature and humidity can cause condensation inside the cassette box or disk. It will also cause the materials from which the tape or disk is made to expand and contract, which they will do at different rates. This expansion and contraction can cause the entire unit to warp.

Try to store tapes and disks in a stable cool environment. Do not, for instance, leave your favorite audio tape in your car in the hot Florida sun. It could literally melt. Do not leave disks on top of your computer monitor or any other heat generating appliance. If a tape or disk has been in the heat for any amount of time, allow it to cool for a while before playing it. The plastics and binders become softer and more easily damaged while very hot .

Although a stable 65º with 30% humidity is the ideal storage environment for magnetic media, it is hard to achieve in Florida. As most computers work best in a cool climate, storage of the floppies in a cooled computer room is one option.

Dust also plays havoc with magnetic media. Dust particles can scratch the plastic base, erasing information. Dust can also damage cassette players, VCRs and disk drives. Dust and vacuum regularly in the areas where these devices are kept and store tapes and floppies inside cases, jackets, or boxes to keep the dust out.


When not using video or audio tapes, store them inside their cases, on-end like books.  Store floppies in their jackets or in upright cases. Avoid over stuffing cases, as cramming disks together can damage them. Do not store disks under anything heavy.

Any magnetic source, such as security systems, magnets, transformers, and electric motors, can affect the magnetic particles on tapes and floppies. Do not store magnetic media in a cabinet with a magnetic lock or catch. Interestingly enough, some types of lamps also produce magnetic fields, keep magnetic media away from the ballast in florescent lamps and the bases of high intensity lamps.

Excessive or constant vibration can also disturb the magnetic field. Periodic trips in the car should not hurt anything, but sitting for any length of time on a running clothes dryer will.

Clearly label your tapes or disks so you know what they are without having to play them. If they become damaged, you will then know whether they are worth the expense of recovery. When labeling floppies, write on the label first, before attaching it. If the label is already attached, use a felt tipped pen, rather than a ball point, to lessen the chance of damaging the platter inside. If you want to re-label a disk, peel the old one off first, rather than stacking labels. Stacked labels can be too thick for the reader and peel off inside your computer.

Do not use paper clips, rubber bands, or other fasteners on a floppy disk. If you need to mail a floppy, use a stiff piece of cardboard or other unbending material to help support it through the mail.

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