Family History Preservation: Preserving Audiovisual Material


While documents and photos can provide valuable insights into the lives of our ancestors, audio and video recordings give an even fuller look at family members by communicating their personalities through voice and visuals. That’s why many families have at least a small stash of audiovisual media, including such items as cassette tape interviews of older relatives or home videos of reunions from decades ago. These recordings are often played back at family events and watched by many, accompanied with some laughter and even good-natured ribbing.

Who wouldn’t want to ensure that these family memories can be enjoyed for generations to come? Yet as with anything else, if you want it to last, you must take some precautions now. Here are some ideas to help you preserve these fun and important family moments.

Caring for Audiovisual Materials

Many of the basic care instructions for audiovisual material are similar to those for documents, photos, and other historical items. It’s important to store cassette tapes, videos, or other electronic media in moderate temperatures and to keep them safe from dust. Never touch their playing surfaces. Avoid handling them if you don’t have to. Also keep sharp objects, including pens, along with food or drink away from your audiovisual collection. If you have damaged cassettes, don’t try to play them. Playing them could make the problem worse. Instead, contact an expert who can convert the content to digital files. (See below for more information.)

When storing or shipping electronic media, be sure to use archival-quality material. Check out the Library of Congress guides listed below for specific instructions for each type of material. And don’t forget to label everything. Detailed labeling helps minimize unnecessary handling and protects against the scenario where the only recording of great-grandma is mistaken for a tape of your favorite popular songs from middle school—and thrown out.

Making It Digital

preserve digital audio recording
While taking steps to preserve the physical discs or cassettes is a good start, it isn’t enough. Electronic media require some sort of playback equipment, such as a tape player or VCR. As time passes, playback equipment becomes obsolete, making it difficult to access your recordings. That’s why it’s so important to digitize these collections.

Unfortunately, digitizing electronic media requires more skill and equipment than digitizing documents or photos. It’s certainly possible to give it a whirl yourself—as long as you have the right equipment or are willing to purchase it. To convert video tapes to digital files, you need a capture card, a device that converts analog footage into a language your computer understands, as well as capture software. Follow this advice if you’d like to try. If these technical terms sound like a foreign language to you, there are plenty of professionals who can help.

Also remember that, as with documents and photos, you can attach audio files (but not videos yet) to your FamilySearch Family Tree. This resource offers another form of preservation and enables others to access the files easily.

Converting Sounds to Text

Audio material provides an opportunity to preserve the sounds of our ancestors—to hear their voices and inflections as they tell stories—and it’s worth the effort to preserve those sounds. But there are also other compelling reasons to get those spoken words down in text. Besides providing another backup, it’s much easier to use and access stories in text than it is by fast-forwarding and rewinding a tape a dozen times.

converting sound to text
Years ago, if you wanted to transcribe a tape, you had little choice but to listen and type, repeating that process until you finished. Now there are other options. You can use computer programs, some of which are available online for free, or you can send your cassette tapes to a professional transcription service. A quick online search will reveal lots of possibilities for both of these options.  

Follow these suggestions, and you can rest assured your audiovisual family treasures will survive—and your grandchildren will be able to listen to grandpa tell in his own words about hitting a homerun in the last inning of the championship high school baseball game.

For More Information

1. The Library of Congress, “Frequently Asked Questions, Audiovisual Materials,” and “Care, Handling and Storage of Audiovisual Materials

2. The New York Times, “Tips on Archiving Family History


Don't foget to add everything to the Memories Gallery when you're done!


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