Recently library staff discovered that we hold in our archives a video interview featuring McDonald’s co-founder Richard (Dick) McDonald, whom video footage of is rare. This interview existed in two copies, both VHS tapes dating from 1992, and was the work of student Tom Dolly and Dr. Judd Patton. In addition to the interview, the video includes background information on the history of McDonald’s, as well as a segment where Dick McDonald is informed that he will be receiving an honorary doctorate from Bellevue College.

As with all magnetic tape storage media, VHS tapes have a fairly limited shelf life. Depending on the quality of manufacture, how they are handled, and the conditions in which they are stored, they can begin to show noticeable signs of video and audio degradation after as early as five years, and even under the most ideal of conditions such deterioration will manifest after about twenty-five years. Given the age of these tapes, we feared that their content would be irretrievably lost unless we did something about it soon, and after investigating digitization possibilities, the decision was made to digitize the tapes in-house, with a purchased analog-to-digital conversion kit.

Both tapes were in extremely bad shape, though their poor shape manifested in very different ways. One had clearly been severely mishandled at some point in its life (the magnetic tape itself looked as if it had been crumpled into a ball before being re-spooled in the cassette) and was almost unwatchable due to the extremely poor video quality. The sound, however, was still largely intact. The other, while in better shape physically, possessed barely functioning audio, though the visuals were in significantly better shape (albeit far from flawless). Materials referencing this interview in the archives confirm that it was produced on a low budget by an amateur team, which further complicated matters, as the audio recording itself was of decidedly poor quality regardless of the condition of the tape; the speakers were too quiet, and the ambient noise was extremely distracting.

Despite the tapes’ problems, we knew we had all the pieces we needed to reassemble the interview into something watchable and very much worth preserving. First, we were able to convert the audio from the former tape into .mp3 format and, with the use of freely-available audio editing software (Audacity, which we also use to edit the More Than Books podcast), we were able to boost the audio on the speakers while dialing back the unpleasant high frequencies. Then we took the video from the latter tape, and using more free software, were able to combine the doctored audio with the visuals and properly align the two tracks so that the end result appears seamless. This process was fraught with setbacks, particularly with regards to the former tape, which ejected its contents into the interior of our VHS player the first time it was rewound. This necessitated disassembling the player in order to carefully retrieve the tangled-up tape, and meant that rewinding the tape needed to be done manually—a painstaking process, as some who lived during the era of VHS tapes might well remember. Nonetheless, we think the end result was worth it. You can watch it in its entirety here:

Originally posted in the Freeman/Lozier Library’s quarterly newsletter, More Than BooksV. 21 No. 4, Fall 2018.

24/7 Librarian