By Rachel Smith, Archives Librarian
As a part of preserving the history of the Royal Gorge region, our museum and other local organizations, such as the Fremont County History Society, have conducted oral history interviews with local residents. Since social distancing guidelines complicate our ability to record face-to-face conversations, we have turned our efforts towards preserving our oral history collection.
The earliest oral history recording in our collection is an interview conducted with August Schultz in 1965 (1984.007.016 Side B). Like the other oral histories in our collection that were recorded before 2010, the audio of this program is on a cassette tape. Cassette tapes, at the height of their popularity, were an inexpensive and easy format to record music and audio. However, archivists face some challenges when trying to preserve recordings and the tapes themselves.
Cassette tapes and other magnetic storage media like VHS tapes are vulnerable to mold growth in high temperature and humid environments. When we handle cassette tapes with unwashed hands, the oils on our fingers can break down the chemical binders on the tape, reducing the audio quality and volume of the recording. If a cassette tape is overplayed or rewound too many times, the tape can wind unevenly on the reels or fracture and break. Cassette tapes have longer lifespans when they are stored in individual containers that keep out dust, in cool and dry environments, and out of sunlight. However, even in the best environmental conditions, magnetic storage media may not last for more than 30 to 50 years. As the earliest tapes in our collection were recorded in the 1970s and 1980s, our window for being able to listen to them is shrinking.
Digitizing cassette tapes, converting the audio recordings on the tapes into a file which can be stored and listened to on a computer, ensures that what is recorded on them can survive for future generations. Not only does digitizing our tapes mean that we don’t have to root around for a cassette player any time we want to listen to one, it makes transcribing oral histories simpler and reduces wear and tear on the tape. When one of our volunteers or staff is transcribing an oral history, being able to rewind the audio to catch something we missed or misheard is a necessity for accuracy. A digital recording can be rewound as many times as possible without damaging the quality, whereas continuous pausing and rewinding of a cassette tape will cause severe mechanical and auditory damage! Converting our cassette tapes to digital files is something that I do on site, though there are professional services that can digitize audio and video recordings. There are various machines that you can use to convert cassette tapes to MP3 files, but I use a Naxa NPB-300, which saves audio files to a USB flash drive. In general, the more expensive equipment (which can be $150-$400) will produce higher quality digital recordings, but there are many conversion machines under $100 which work well.
When I want to digitize a cassette tape, I always ensure that it is fully rewound before I start recording and stop recording only when the tape runs out. This is to ensure the tape is not damaged as it travels through the reels. After the cassette tape finishes recording, I transfer the audio file on the USB thumb drive to our server, where it is ready to be transcribed and uploaded to our collections database. It has been fun listening to the stories on our collection, and I cannot wait to hear what new things we will learn after more than 300 oral histories are transcribed!