In this post, I consider two options for digitizing VHS tapes and think about the process for digitizing family movies.
My family gave me eleven Video Home System (VHS) tapes of Yip family gatherings from the 1980s and 90s. My cousin said, “You will know what to do with these.” She was confident in my knowledge but I was less certain. What should I do with them? There was no question of keeping them in their original format. VHS tapes are inherently fragile: even if stored perfectly, they will deteriorate over time. The best method of preservation is digitization. But how?
This week I got an email from Kodak.
Option 1: Outsource to Kodak
There was a sale at Kodak: they’d convert twenty tapes for $249 ($12.45/ tape). Not only would this save me tons of time but it was also 58% off. I get excited about deals that are more than half off. But it appeared the offer was about to expire… should I get the deal now and choose tapes later? I only had eleven tapes.
I asked my husband, “How many VHS tapes do you need digitized?”
“A lot,” he said, eating breakfast, “when do you need them?”
I turned back to the site to read the fine print. Everything in the ad checked out. It seemed legit. I was on the verge of clicking the Buy Now button when I realized I was reading the “.com” site. I’m in Canada. I’ve been burned by American sites before. I searched the site for shipping outside the United States.
WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? WHY AM I GETTING MARKETING EMAILS FOR SERVICES I CAN’T USE?
Scratch the Kodak option.
Option 2: do it yourself
I remembered we had a machine for converting tapes. It’s been sitting under our TV for more than eight years. I took a closer look.
Have you ever done this? Buy some custom hardware for a project and by the time you get around to it, the media are obsolete? Say hello to our VHS to Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) converter. This machine was released in 2011, but the DVD format had the life expectancy of a house fly. Who needs DVDs in the era of Dropbox and Netflix?
Scratch the DIY option.
Should you digitize at all?
I was still curious about what was on the tapes. I dusted off the Toshiba and popped a tape into the VHS slot. Handling the controls took me back to my youth, of Blockbuster Video stores, Be kind – rewind, of FFWD / RWD / PLAY / PAUSE.
VHS sound and vision is worse than you remember
I’d forgotten how dreadful VHS was.
The tape took a few seconds to play: the sound washing in and out, with white stripes running across the picture. When it got going, the video was soft and fuzzy. My eyes, now accustomed to 4K high-definition, kept trying and failing to focus what I was seeing into the sharpness I subconsciously expect.
The sound was worse. I was reminded of advice given before appearing in my first online panel:
People will tolerate bad visuals but will not tolerate bad sound.K. L. Hogan, Genealogy with a Canadian Twist, “Genealogy Planning,” 8 Jan 2020
My ears took some time to attune to sounds recorded on a 1980s handheld video camera and played back on a thirty-six year old tape. Eventually my ears got used to the muddiness – like listening to someone speaking through a wall – and my brain sorted out the words.
I reviewed three tapes. I meant to review four but the last one was broken – the tape had come undone from one spool and was firmly wrapped around the left side. I realized that not every tape was worth digitizing. Looking briefly at the rest of the titles, I realized many are duplicates. Of the original eleven, it’s possible I’ll only be converting three or four tapes in total.
Home movies are hard to identify
Do you remember videotapes? Shows recorded on top of each other? Fast-forwarding a tape to find the beginning of the next bit? I didn’t. Reviewing these tapes reminded me of all of that. For these videos, the videographer was careful, shooting events, significant photos, family trees, and setup visuals (now called B-roll). It was like watching tapes of raw video – video before the editing process.
For each tape, I made notes:
- Name of tape as written on the box
- Description of what was on the tape
- Time stamps: when a section began and when it ended
- What was being recorded in each section
For example: “Yip Family Reunion 1986, Gastown Productions, 342 Water St. Van., 685-8143;” (1986); [name withheld], “2 mins 18 sec to 26 mins 38 sec – picnic.”
I realized something significant.
Digitizing alone would not improve the quality of these recordings.
These tapes need heavy editing.
Why is video editing important?
If you’re not familiar with the video editing process, let me share what I’ve learned:
All video is improved by the editing process, even videos shot on the latest smartphones. A “long” video is considered to be over three minutes. Videos need captions: for accents, enunciation, unfamiliar names, and more. The easier you make a video to understand, the more likely it is to be viewed by your intended audience, from family to friends.
As a family historian, I have endless patience for memories, but if I want anyone coming after me to be similarly interested, these hours of visuals will need heavy editing. Were I to simply digitize the tapes as they are for my family – complete with muddy sound, fuzzy visuals, and without titles and tags – I doubt few would bother watching them.
No editing? No audience.
Let me share a story with you. Years ago, my husband’s family took the time to digitize Super 8 movies from about the 1940s. The concept sounded fabulous and the family generously made several DVD copies. When they were done, we all gathered to watch. I could feel the unease in the room. We went from fascinated to curious to frustrated within ten minutes. It was hard to pay attention to the silent, choppy visuals of mostly unidentifiable people in unknown places as they went about their lives. When they spoke to the camera, I almost expected a Chaplinesque screen to appear with words. The shaking camera made me nauseous. I’m a genealogist and I had a hard time paying attention for the duration.
We’ve never bothered to watch them again.
Which brings me to why. Why take the time to digitize old tapes?
What are your goals for a digitization project?
As I work through this process, I need to ask myself about the goals of this project. Before investing time and dollars:
- What are the goals for converting the tapes to digital?
- Who is the intended audience?
- Where will the converted files be used?
- Where will the files be stored?
- How will the files be shared?
- Where will the files go in twenty years or more (legacy planning)?
My answers to the above are:
- Goals: genealogical research, preservation of family legacy
- Audience: family, readers, students
- Usage: genealogical research, blog, teaching materials
- Storage: Dropbox and external hard drive
- Sharing: not yet determined but possibly Dropbox
- Legacy planning: public archives
My reasons will be different from yours but remember: the goals should guide the project. I’m a storyteller: my goal is to tell the stories of our lineage. To do that, I am thinking about curating the best bits of these recordings and turning them into shorter, more consumable videos. I’m weighing the investment against the results and already I’m editing: choosing which tapes to convert and which to ignore. Unlike photos, where I scanned every original, I won’t be digitizing two copies of the same video.
Next steps: outsource locally
I’m ready to consider outsourcing again. After this experience I know better what to look for: shipping to Canada, safety in handling one-of-a-kind family originals, and perhaps some editing. If I could take on another project like the five year Chu family photo scanning project, where I had more time than money, I’d convert the tapes to DVD with our current hardware, then find a way to upload the results to Dropbox. I’ll keep you posted on what happens next.
Thank yous this week to my cousins Hoy and Grace for their lifelong dedication to our family legacy. I stand on your shoulders and I am forever grateful.
12 thoughts on “What do I do with old VHS tapes?”
Hi Linda. You may want to watch at least part of each duplicate tape, since one might be slightly better quality so would be better for digitizing. Digital Treasures in Toronto, Ontario, and Media House in Cambridge, ON are Canadian companies I know who do quality digitizations for multiple media formats. Digital Treasures has discount sale prices from time to time, especially before Christmas. Check each company’s site for details. You may want to go with the Pro Res MP4 video format, saved to external HDD, either one you provide or one they sell, your choice. D T digitized some regular 9mm movies from 1951 for me last year and the transfer was great. The original camera exposure (Kodachrome – ASA/ISO 12), compositions, and handheld pans and zooms, were another story, but accurately reproduced in digital. MP4 is easily edited at home. You might want to consider it as a replacement for DVDs for sharing, especially since DVD players seem to be going the way of VCRs.
Art, Thank you so much for sharing your expertise here.
I reviewed two of the duplicates and see what you’re saying: one is better than the other. Of the remaining seeming duplicates I’ll see which one appears the best overall quality. That having been said, “quality” is subjective. As you saw in my post, the overall quality is dreadful and unlike scanning good quality (if small) black and white photos, there’s no inherent quality to “bring out” in these sources.
Some folks are recommending the DIY route with products such as Elgato. I don’t have many tapes so I’m leaning toward outsourcing. I’ll try DT.
For some reason, our family never did home movies. Lots of photos, but no home movies…I have only one VHS I’d like to digitize – one that has me on Reach for the Top (am I showing my age or what). For that, I’ll eventually go to the Inspiration Lab at VPL where I can use their VHS digitization station. We haven’t played the tape in years.
Tell me more about the Inspiration Lab please! You remind me that Calgary’s beautiful new central library also had a digital room.
It’s a fantastic area that allows for creation and digitization with many services…only partially open right now, but it’s a huge boon to the community. Here’s a link: https://www.vpl.ca/inspirationlab
At the library where I work, I created a small digitization station – for photos, slides, and negatives only (we’re limited both by budget and space), but it’s used on a regular basis 🙂 We have an Epson V600 scanner…
WOW. What a resource for the public to use!
I LOVE the future libraries are envisioning: future focused, relevant, and essential. Here in the winter city of Saskatoon, the library is the only indoor public space one can go where no money is needed to be there and nobody will be charged for vagrancy.
Once again, you nail this dilemma! I recently went through some boxes I got after my dad died and found a small collection of cassettes he filmed on his last video camera, a Super8. They were neatly labeled and contained things like my oldest son’s 8th birthday party or Christmas at our house. I could view them on the camera and looked into digitizing them myself. The converter cost over $200 and then there’s all the time involved, so I decided not to go that route. I know an IT guy who got into this as a side hussle, and he is converting them for a song. In fact, he’s dropping off the USB drive today. Of course, I still have all that editing if I want to share them, but right now I’m just hoping to show a bit of them to my sons. My sister and I paid $100 a reel to have some local people digitize my grandparents’ films starting in 1930s, but the place went out of business before we coughed up enough money to do all 11 reels. And then I got stuck on editing them and coming up with a consistent presentation design, etc., etc. Thanks for adding some rational thought to this process. Sometimes you just have to let them go.
Thank you, Elda. I am loving the feedback that’s coming in. Many people appear to have chosen the DIY route. Some recommend places they paid to convert tapes. One suggested thinking about copyright – which I admit I never considered.
For this project, there’s no rush. I know I have a lot of relatives who might like to see what I’ve got but perhaps not. The truth is there’s a fine line between a committed genealogist and an information hoarder. 🙂 My family does not want to see everything, or even the entirety of a single tape. They want to see something curated and explained.
Upload to YouTube. You can share, make private or public.
One issue I’ve encountered, when trying to share photos on a private platform, is passwords. I made a shared album on Shutterfly and emailed the link to family members only. But to make it truly private, you have to set a password. I made it fairly simple…but people never remembered what the password was. I gave up on requiring a password to view the Shutterfly album, because it was a stumbling block for family members.
I imagine making a private channel on YouTube or other platforms also requires people to have accounts (“I don’t want to set up another account online”) and remember a password (“I tried to view this, but it says I need a password – what password?”)
Anybody have suggestions about this issue?
One option is to make a video unlisted on YouTube. It’s not findable but anyone with the link can see it. Similarly a link for Dropbox.