Storing and Preserving Physical Media
PUBLISHED: Monday, November 23, 2020

Storing and Preserving Physical Media 

Physical media—cassette tapes, VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs, etc.—may be a relic of the pre-streaming world, but there are a great many people that have some level of interest in preserving it. For some of those folks, it’s the cherished memories on the old tapes or discs that matters. These people have a rather simple and elegant solution available: digital conversion. Birthday parties, anniversaries, first steps, and first words can be given an endless lifespan by converting them to ones and zeroes. But for some collectors, it’s the form of the thing that matters. Folks in this camp are aware that their favorite movies or records are available digitally, but their interest is in preserving old forms of media so future generations can understand and appreciate them. For folks in that latter camp, what follows are some basic storage tips and insights into the “shelf life” of different sorts of media.

Storing Vinyl Records

Vinyl records earn a dedicated entry because the way they function and degrade are unlike either magnetic or digital storage. Records are, for all intents and purposes, an analog mode of sound reproduction; the record player’s needle rides in a groove whose shape and structure cause the needle to vibrate, which produces sound. Thus, the “life” of a vinyl record is impacted by how often it’s played, how much dirt and debris are allowed to accumulate in the grooves, the quality of the vinyl itself, and the ambient conditions of the storage area.

Records that are played or handled infrequently, stored vertically in their sleeves, and kept in a dry (and relatively cool) environment are estimated to have a usable lifespan of over 100 years—perhaps longer than any other common audio format. The flip side of that coin is that frequently played (or improperly stored) records have the shortest potential lifespan of any common format.

Storing & Preserving Magnetic Media

For the purposes of music and film collectors, magnetic storage media generally refers to any medium that uses magnetized tape to store audio and/or visual information—VHS and compact cassettes, mostly. The most important thing to understand about these formats is that, while the housings may be relatively robust, the tape itself is not. Dust can easily scratch magnetic tape and render it effectively useless. Temperature or moisture extremes—even those experienced in parts of homes, like attics and basements—can cause the tape to degrade relatively quickly. Even the act of playing cassettes or VHSs wears down the tape inside of them.

Because the magnetic tape at the heart of these formats is so fragile, the advertised lifespan was generally only 10 to 20 years. However, tapes that are stored in climate-controlled environments, kept very clean, played rarely, and rewound after every use have demonstrated much longer lives—30 or 40 years (and counting) in some instances. It’s also crucial to store magnetic tape away from other magnets or equipment that contains them, like speakers, because it can erase the contents of the tape.

Storing and Preserving Optical Media

For our purposes, this advice is broadly applicable to any “disc” media—primarily CDs and DVDs, though it also includes less successful formats like LaserDisc and HD-DVD. These store data on a thin metallic layer sandwiched between plastic sheets; the data is read by a laser and converted into output, very much like a less robust version of a computer’s hard disk drive. Unlike vinyl or magnetic tape, the act of playing a disc shouldn’t be destructive to the thing itself and, as a result, the expected lifespan of properly stored optical media was initially thought to be almost limitless. Some examples live up to that expectation, while others don’t even make it to the 10-year mark—and in this case, those discrepancies are almost entirely the fault of manufacturers.

Optical media discs were not, and still are not, built to any single standard. The thickness of the discs or the individual layers therein, the composition of the plastic and metallic layers, printing on the “tops” of the discs, and the adhesives used to join the layers all varied wildly from manufacturer to manufacturer. As a result, some discs work like new 30 years later while others tarnish, delaminate, and “rot” from the metallic layer outward. This is especially true of writable/rewritable CDs and DVDs, many of which were constructed poorly and sold on spindles that allowed the discs to rub together before they’d even been removed from the packaging.

Optical media should, like all other sorts, be stored in a clean area with a relatively consistent temperature and humidity level. Discs should only be handled by the edges and stored vertically in cases when not in use. It’s crucial to avoid cases that “grab” or hold discs too firmly, though; you should never have to bend or flex a disc to release it, because repeated flexing can weaken adhesives and cause disc layers to delaminate. Unlike other sorts of physical media, though, discs can be played much more frequently without fear of degradation because there’s no mechanical contact between the data surface and the laser that reads it.

Storing and preserving your media collection can be a daunting task. At Home Theater Express, our customer service representatives are available to answer your questions online at ht-express.com and by phone at 1 (800) 774-0893.