It’s easy to look at a tape and assume that it’s going to last for forever. After all, the casing is hearty, the film is tucked safely behind it, and nobody ever touches them. Ever.
This might come as a surprise to you, but tapes don’t actually live forever. In fact, their shelf life might be quite a bit shorter than you might think. The actual lifespan can vary significantly depending on a ton of different factors. If you’re able to hypothetically store your tapes in the perfect environment (around 70 degrees, no humidity, and no playback), then there’s a chance that the magnetic tape could last for decades.
Tapes aren’t just the magnetic film inside. The plastic on the casing can become brittle in as little as 10 years, constant playback can cause wear and tear on the film itself, and the glue that holds the tape to the reels can unbind quicker than you’d like to imagine.
If you add on top the fact that most storage environments aren’t ideal--some have high humidity, too much light exposure, rats, and more--the actual lifespan for most video cassettes is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-30 years. I know what you’re thinking, “But Christian, I have tapes from the 80s that are still in OK shape. They’re sitting in my 1994 gigantic media wall. You’re just making things up.”
Ok, so when was the last time that you played those tapes? If it was recently, how was the video quality? Video cassettes use magnetic film, so they can deteriorate over time, leaving you holding tapes with a bunch of film with nothing on it. Plus, and this is a big one, do you actually even own a VCR anymore? Most folks threw theirs out in the garbage when Blockbuster went out of business, and if you don’t have a working VCR, how exactly are you going to play them?
It sounds harsh, but obsolescence might actually be the biggest detriment to VHS tapes. The equipment needed to play them is antiquated, and most folks just plain don’t own it anymore. That’s why it’s more important than ever to get your VHS home movie tapes backed up digitally. DVDs last approximately forever, but not many people even use DVD players anymore.
Storing things digitally in a USB thumb drive that you can back up on the cloud is truly the best way to ensure that your memories will be safe from the ravages of technological advancement and time. Don’t roll the dice with your family’s most cherished memories while hoping that the sun, water, or rats destroy some of your favorite home videos. Get your stuff backed up before it’s too late!