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Collecting and Managing Your Personal and Family Records: Media

Rare and Distinctive Collections


Classroom: Norlin N345

Reading Room: Norlin M350B

Image credit: "Cars and trains - 7" (November 1966), Ira B. Current collection, University of Colorado Boulder Libraries' Archives

Close-up photograph of 16mm film strips with image of 1950s station wagon in an autumn woodWhile paper records and photographs can give us strong evidence of the past, sometimes the most precious parts of our personal archives are audio-visual items, which allow us to see and hear our families and former selves in real time. From home movie film and video, audio tapes and vinyl records, to CDs and DVDs, archival media can come in a wide variety of different formats, which often require specific preservation needs and specialized playback instructions. The resources on this page may help you to unlock the vivid memories held in your audio-visual collections. 

Preservation and care

Environmental conditions: 

Recommended conditions for storing audio-visual media are the same as those for paper records and photographs: 

  • Choose a relatively cool, stable environment (less than 70 degrees), with little fluctuation of temperature and humidity
  • Avoid environments with excessive heat, moisture, static, and magnetic objects 
  • Limit exposure to direct sunlight, to prevent image fading or other damage
  • Store media in sturdy paper or archival plastic containers, with little room for shifting or bending

Handling and use: 

Please note: Operating playback equipment or attempting to clean or repair audio-visual material without careful training or instructions could cause damage to the material. Remember that all films, tapes, and recordings become increasingly fragile and at risk of damage over time. Handle all audio-visual material carefully.

As always, one of the most imporant steps to insuring your personal and family history lasts through the ages is to identify, date, and clearly label material as you create and use it, including the people, places, and events depicted. 

Recommendations by media type

Click on the tabs below for more specific information on different audio-visual media formats.

  • Physical breakage, tears, and scratches, caused by mishandling
  • Vinegar syndrome:
    • The chemical deterioration of much motion picture film will release a strong vinegar smell
    • Once begun, vinegar syndrome will accelerate rapidly, causing warping, shrinking, and considerable physical decay to the film 
    • Vinegar syndrome can spread from one film to others. Acid emited from degrading film can also damage paper, boxes, and other materials, and it is dangerous to breathe
  • Handling: 
    • ​​​​​​Keep work surfaces free of dust and debris to prevent scratching film
    • Handle film strips by the edges. Try not to touch the film image with your hands, to avoid damage from skin oils
    • Lint-free cotton or nitrile gloves are recommended
  • Storage:
    • Store film reels in closed cans or boxes, preferably archival plastic
    • Store film reels horizontally, not on their edges
    • Films with vinegar syndrome should be isolated, sealed in archival-quality plastic, and frozen to prevent continued decay

On nitrate film: You may have heard that motion picture film made of nitrate can be extremely flammable. Fortunately, 8mm, Super-8mm, and 16mm film - the most common formats for home movies - are almost never made of nitrate. If you have 35mm film reels, created before 1950, they may be made of nitrate. The safest means of storing nitrate film is freezer strorage, wrapped in archival plastic. See the resources below for cold storage instructions.

  • Contaminant damage from dust or dirt, especially when played before cleaning
  • Warping and physical damage from poor storage containers and environment
  • Demagnetiziation, when stored near highly magnetic objects
  • Sticky shed: 
    • When the magnetic coating on an audio or video tape begins to deteriorate, it may become sticky or gummy. If sticky tapes are played or mishandled, parts of the recording may be lost
  • Handling: 
    • Do not touch tape surfaces with bare hands. Handle tape edges or use lint-free cotton or nitrile gloves
    • Do not play tapes that are dirty, sticky, or damaged
    • Freezing magnetic audio or video tape is not recommended
  • Storage:
    • Store audio and video tapes verticially, on the long edge
  • Physical scratches, dirt, and dust, especially when played before cleaning
  • Grooved media (records and LPs):
    • Physical cracks and breakage
    • Warping, especially due to high heat or poor storage conditions
    • Palmitic acid: 
      • A thin layer of white film can indicate the early stages of degradation. Palmitic acid can be carefully cleaned before playing.
    • Delamination:
      • When the lacquer layer of a grooved disc degrades considerably, it can separate from the base layer, leading to a loss of the recorded sound
  • Handling
    • Handle all grooved discs by the edges and label area only
    • Handle CD and videodiscs by the edges and center circle only
    • Lint-free or nitrile gloves are recommended
    • Use a carbon fiber brush before playing records and LP, to clear dust and basic particle debris
  • Storage
    • Store discs vertically, on their edge, to prevent damage from stacked weight
    • Support discs to prevent leaning, bending, or shifting
    • Grooved media: 
      • Use acid-free paper sleeves or polyethylene plastic sleeves inside stiff archival cardboard
    • CDs and videodiscs: 
      • Storage in original or replacement jewelcases is fine
      • Use stiff archival paper sleeves for oversized videodiscs or discs without cases

This content adapted from a number of sources: "Home Film Preservation Guide," Association of Moving Image Archivists; "Care, Handling, and Storage of Audio Visual Materials," Library of Congress Preservation Directorate; "Videotape Preservation Fact Sheets," Association of Moving Image Archivists (2002); and "Fundamentals of AV Preservation," Northeast Document Conservation Center."

Identifying media formats

Suggested resources