Sticky-shed syndrome in Audiotapes

In a recent post, I discussed audio cassette tapes and their recent re-appearance on the market with popular movie franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m certain that plenty of people will be receiving a copy of this cassette tape during the holiday season. Many will likely begin digging through old boxes in the garage to find more tapes to play, suddenly nostalgic for their golden years. But before you begin sticking old tapes that have been in storage into your boom-box, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: sticky-shed syndrome. 

This condition is one most archivists run across while processing old audio/visual materials, but is very much a threat for anyone that is holding onto audiotape. So what is sticky-shed syndrome? In short, it is a condition created by the deterioration of the binders in a magnetic tape, which hold the iron oxide magnetizable coating to its plastic carrier, or which hold the thinner back-coating on the outside of tape If this sounds confusing, don’t worry. I’ve borrowed an image from Imperial College to help show you what we’re talking about…

Sticky-Shed Syndrome

A closer look at sticky-shed syndrome from Imperial College, UK.

As you can see in the close-up above, the coating of a/v audio often begins to deteriorate over time. The binder (or ‘glue’) that holds the oxide (dark coloration on the tape) on the tape can become damage over time. Soaking up water, including humidity from inside of a garage in the Arizona heat, is one explanation for why this occurs.

If you have any audiotape, it could be at risk. The best thing to do before attempting to play old cassettes or other audio media you’ve been storing is to give the tape a quick inspection. If you see “dust” in a case, it is likely oxide particles that have fallen off, and you likely have a tape with some serious issues. If you don’t see any immediate damage, you can always insert the tape into a player. But, if you hear loud screeching sounds on the tape as you attempt to play or rewind/fast-forward, STOP. This is another sign that there are problems with the tape.


Sticky-shed from attempting to play older tapes.

What are your options if you have a tape that you suspect has sticky-shed syndrome? There is one easy at-home remedy that you can always try: Move the tape to a dryer, lower-humidity climate. Sometimes the tapes can “dry” by themselves, the extra moisture will be gone, and the tape can then be salvaged. If this does work, you should definitely consider migrating the tape to a newer form of technology.

Baking is another semi-risky procedure where you literally bake the tape at low temperatures. There’s not a set procedure for doing this, and different labs/technicians/hobbyists have different methods. At times this will dry the tape out enough so that it can quickly be recorded onto a newer media format. Other times, the tapes have been known to catch fire, so there definitely is a risk involved. Even the best technicians admit that sometimes baking does not help a tape. If most of the oxide coating is gone, no amount of baking will be able to perfect the tape.

Keeping audiotape away from humid temperatures is highly recommended. Whenever possible, store them in air-tight containers. Whenever possible, do convert any tape you have to another form of media to further preserve it. While sticky-shed syndrome is more common in certain stock brands (Ampex/Scotch-3M, etc.) it can occur in any brand. One of the best methods for preservation is migration to a new format.



A critical look at maps

I love maps. In my undergraduate years here at the University of Arizona, I was a geography major, and even though I am in graduate school for library science, my interest for the relationship between people and their environment hasn’t waned. In fact, one of the really cool things about the archives is that you can continue learning about the things you love—but with primary sources. 

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Map of El Presidio by Judith Chafee. What factors could have influenced the designation of El Presidio as historic district? Why are the limits of the district where they are?

As I keep working through the Chafee collection, I have begun to understand that architects are also very interested in the relationship between people and their environments—just in a different way that geographers are. However, in order to plan sites and figure out where to put buildings, a lot of geographic methods are required. Last week, I started processing Chafee’s research files, which are materials she collected when doing research for her architectural projects. Two of the biggest subcategories have turned out to be “Tucson Historic Districts” and “Planning and Zoning.” Inside these folders are a plethora of maps, reports, and analyses detailing the geography of Tucson’s Historic Districts and Barrios. Many of these materials were produced in preparation for the urban renewal projects implemented in Tucson’s downtown area that razed many of Tucson’s oldest Mexican neighborhoods in order to build the Tucson Convention Center and the La Placita complex. 

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This map was produced by the Tucson City Planning and Human and Community Development Departments . What might “perceived neighborhoods” mean? How do these clean shapes represent the space?

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Another map from the same report as above, here you can see the older neighborhoods underneath the community and civic center.

In my opinion, it is extremely important to remain critical and ask questions about what the map is attempting to represent, especially when looking at historical maps. Different layers, boundaries, and zones on a map try to represent real spaces, but the relationship between the map and the real place, and the people who live there can be complicated. Some questions to think of might be, what was going on in this place at this time? what does it mean to draw boundaries on land? what do boundaries on the map mean? do the boundaries mean something to the people that live there? would someone who lives there use the same boundary lines? Can lines be fuzzy? Throwing history in the mix makes things even more complicated because we can ask these questions across time, as well, and in an archive, we know that different places have different value to different people. 

Distractions lead to a Washington Mystery — “The Case of the Missing Painting” (1968)

It is December 4, 2017. A graduate student student is searching through the Morris K. Udall finding aid (MS 325). She suspects blog readers may be interested in Udall’s involvement with the investigation regarding the Kennedy Assassination. However, another Washington mystery has caught her eye. In a box of correspondence is a folder labeled “The case of the Missing Painting,” and her interests are piqued. As she searches through the folder, she realizes she has stumbled upon an unsolved mystery, and seeks to re-open the case. A potential reader may have information that can help solve a case that went cold in July 1968.

The Beginning: Morris K. Udall is Decorating his Office 

It is June of 1968 and Morris K. Udall is serving in the House of Representatives. His Washington office, like so many other offices, lacks a certain personal touch. Udall, who describes himself as an “amateur student of Indian painting,” decides that he can add his own personal touch to his office by hanging two paintings. He reaches out to an avid art collector (and friend) who agrees to loan Mo two paintings. Both paintings are taken to Rosequist Galleries in Tucson, where they are packaged/crated and prepared for shipment. The Gallery sends the paintings to Washington.


Correspondence confirming that two paintings were sent from Rosequist Galleries in Arizona to the Cannon House Office Building in Washington. (MS 325, Box 7, Folder 8)

The Case: A Painting Goes Missing! 

“On or about June 28th a crate was delivered to my office in the Cannon House Office Building,” according to correspondence from July 17th from Mo.


Excerpt from correspondence from Udall to Marvin Snodgrass of Snodgrass & Downey Insurance. (MS 325, Box 7, Folder 8).

The following events unfold in a dramatic fashion. A crate is left outside of Mo’s office and an employee opens the crate. Inside, there are supposed to be two paintings. The first is “On the Santa Fe Trail” by Frank Tenney Johnson. This painting is removed and an employee begins to hang the painting in the office.


“On the Santa Fe Trail” by Frank Tenney Johnson.

A panic erupts when Mo enters the room and inquires about the second painting. The missing painting is titled “Quiet Pool” by E. I. Couse. Couse (full name Eanger Irving Couse) is known for his paintings of Native Americans, the New Mexico landscape, and the broader American Southwest. He set up shop in Taos, where his shop still remains and is preserved as a historic site. Despite having over 75 well-recognized works on Google, there are no images of “Quiet Pool,” because the painting is lost. According to Rosequist Galleries, both paintings were housed in the same crate, and Couse’s work should be in the crate. Yet, as correspondence reveals, the crate has already been taken away and destroyed. The employee that opened the crate to hang Johnson’s painting is near-certain there was not another painting.

Mystery: Was the Painting Stolen???

The crate the paining(s) were shipping in is now gone. Udall is missing a painting that has been loaned to him. Thus the question becomes… did someone steal the painting? According to at least one story run by a DC newspaper, Richard Olson (Udall’s secretary) believes that the second painting was unpacked and was potentially stolen while no one was looking.


(MS 325, Box 7, Folder 8)


The painting was worth an estimated $6,000 — so a potential thief may have taken the painting in the hopes that they could resell it on the market. Barry Kalb, writing for the Washington Star, described the painting as “an Indian sitting on a rock staring into a pool of water.” During this interview, Olson suggested that perhaps someone took the original crate as firewood–complicating the mystery further, because now the crate itself appears to have vanished. There is a missing painting and a missing crate with no evidence of where the Couse painting has gone.


(MS 325, Box 7, Folder 8)

First, Udall’s staff does an internal investigation. The original crate was either immediately destroyed -or- was taken off the property. It is never found. After interviewing staff, the Capitol police receive a report that the painting is missing. It is now suspected that, potentially, someone has stolen the painting. It could, as Olson suggests, be that someone accidentally took the wood crate home for firewood and realized later they had the painting. Perhaps they were afraid to bring it back. Maybe they did not know they had it, and burned it. These are all plausible but Udall, still convinced the painting may turn up, offers a $50 reward. After several media and press releases, the painting is never found.

Today: Can we Solve this Case?

After reviewing the brief correspondence and “evidence” that is contained in the Udall Collection, I have my own questions regarding this mystery.

First– could this painting have been mis-titled when it was originally shipped? There is a painting by Couse titled “Indian at Sacred Lake” that sound remarkably similar to the painting Kalb describes in his Washington Star article. I’ll insert a picture, and perhaps you’ll see the similarities as well . . .


“Indian at Sacred Lake” by E. Iriving Couse (1921). Oil on canvas. El Paso Museum of Art.

If there was a labeling mistake, then eventually the painting did resurface and is now housed at the El Paso Museum of Art. This is one potential ending to this decades old mystery, but one that creates more questions than answers: How did someone bungle the title originally? Did the seller actually steal the painting to make a profit? Did the El Paso Museum of Art ever note the origins of the painting? Thus, this would be an interesting and potentially dramatic ending, but would need further investigation. Also, the archivist in me would hope that the original owner and Rosequist Galleries would have known the correct title for the piece they sent Udall.

There are, of course, other options. Sadly, the painting could indeed have been inside the missing crate. Custodial staff could have easily picked it up as trash, discarded it, and now the painting is destroyed and decayed, never to resurface.

Or, perhaps the painting is still out there. An accidental mix-up could have led to someone taking the painting home (accidentally!) and maybe they never knew they had the “missing painting.” Perhaps they hung it on the wall or stored it in the attic. It could very well still be out there, waiting to one day reappear. Maybe you, reading this right now, are suddenly glancing over at a suspicious painting hanging in your grandmother’s parlor . . . could this be the missing painting I’m reading about?

We may never know what happened to “Quiet Lake,” but alas, that may not be the moral of the story. Instead, what I would encourage is for researchers to allow themselves to be distracted while working in archives. Had I not been curious about the title of this folder, I may never have stumbled upon a great mystery. So do not be afraid to follow in my footsteps and let distraction take you on a new journey!

A Ramble before a Rest: Making Good Archival Introductions

This semester, I have primarily worked on processing archival collections and preparing them for use by the public. Processing is a somewhat obsessive task, as you fall into the tiny details of a mostly-obscure individual whose papers – by privilege or chance – arrived at your repository. Soon you have little else to talk about, at least until processing is through. However, most of what happens to and with a collection happens after it is processed and considered done: visitors rummage through the records, they take photos and share them with colleagues and friends, they take notes which turn into books, documentaries, newspaper articles, or family stories, and they introduce others to the materials. These interactions, I feel, are the critical center of archiving.

This past summer, I worked as a reference intern at the National Anthropological Archives and spent my days answering visitor questions, finding documents, providing historical and cultural context for materials (as best I could), and explaining to researchers how the archives could be of help.  I was fortunate to be mentored by Caitlin Haynes, reference archivist, who emphasized the importance of being a support and collaborator to researchers – not an enforcer of archival practice, or a breathing Google search tutorial. NAA records were in use for language revitalization, repatriation of human remains and cultural artifacts, historicizing the discipline of anthropology, creating postcolonial web art – just as a start. To support this kind of personal work, archivists need to show empathy, patience, and confidence in the researcher.

“You can put that finding aid where your heart ought to be.”

In the “current political climate,” many of us are feeling short on all three of those attributes: I know I am. At the same time, researchers come to the archives to find hope – hope of rebuilding, of making sense of one’s own existence, or of finding old/new ways to be and do in the world. We think of archives as repositories of information, but that information is scaffolded by embodied human experiences. How we engage with our researchers – whether through finding aids, at the reference desk, or by e-mail – can set the tone for engagements between the researcher and the materials. Think of how difficult it is to learn when you don’t feel the teacher has faith in you. If our encounters with researchers are based in preservationist fears, or the belief that some researchers are more or less capable of engaging with the materials intelligently, then we stifle the very interactions our archives are meant to host. We become bad hosts.

At Special Collections, I’m thinking more and more about archiving as a kind of introducing: helping researchers meet materials which tell stories I cannot tell, stories I do not know. As a host, I want to make good introductions. For instance, a good introduction doesn’t intimidate either party: this might mean writing a finding aid with clear, non-academic language which summarizes what the materials might say but doesn’t over-promise. A good introduction also doesn’t frighten one party by belaboring the other party’s frailty: a finding aid, and reference encounter, with a minimum of scolding about maintaining archival perfection. Can you imagine a dinner party introduction with the content of a finding aid?

“Carol, this is Judy. I hope you have fun talking. But for God’s sake, Judy, watch out because Carol has dry skin and could fall apart at any moment. We only bring her out at holidays. And don’t ask her about her divorce: RESTRICTED. Only one topic at a time, please. Stay where I can see you!”

Over-anxious introductions don’t respect the worth, and competence, of both parties. A photo in the archive might be one of a kind, but so is the researcher. Is preventing fingerprints on a photo worth damaging a researcher’s belief in their own intelligence, or their own value? A good introduction balances the needs of both parties. It sounds simple, but it’s an ongoing process: How can we, as archivists, make good introductions every day? How can we show confidence in our researchers, and demonstrate that we believe them more than worthy of what our stacks hold?

I think the majority of the work is internal: monitoring our impulses and attitudes to understand why we want to hover, to over-explain, to protect one party from another. Learning a model of equity in a workshop is easy; implementing changes in attitude and practice within yourself and your personal life is much harder.

In processing, archivists get to know materials exceptionally well. Through the Carithers papers and the soon-to-be-released Murphey records, I’ve had the chance to try out various ‘introductions’ and think about how they will or will not help a researcher get to know the materials as I have and – hopefully – in different ways. As I wrap up the Fall term, I’m looking forward to next semester, making new ‘nonhuman friends’ in the archives, and hopefully making good introductions along the way.

They’ve truly got one of these for everyone! Thanks to Donna Haraway for a continual stream of ideas on how to live in our busy world.


(I recommend – for archivists and researchers alike – Jarrett Drake’s writing on surveillance, belonging, and liberatory archives. Many thanks to the Special Collections staff and the staff at the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives for their generous guidance over this past year. I’d also like to offer gratitude to Dr. Katie Walkiewicz for sharing her archival experience with me, inspiring this last post of the semester.)


What is a cassette tape? Why do we have them?

As a graduate student, I’m not afraid to admit that sometimes processing materials downstairs in Special Collections can be lonely. Once assigned a collection, you spend a great deal of time working by yourself. You enter the “Processing World” and focus entirely on the materials in front of you. Often, I’ve spent entire days without conversing with anyone.


This week, I had a random (and entirely wonderful) experience while working downstairs. I’m currently in the process of shifting a collection to make room for growth in our accession area. Shifting, in short, is making space for processed collections on the shelves–thus, unprocessed collections are moved to a different shelving unit. It is an arduous task often completed alone, but it does give one a lot of time to reflect on their day. Whilst moving boxes, I admit to opening the lids to glance at the contents inside. Since I’m working mainly with audio visual (a/v) materials this semester, I wanted to have a count of any a/v items in a particular unprocessed collection. While working with one particular box, a member of the Library maintenance staff happened to be walking by and suddenly stopped to chat.

“Are those cassettes?”

They were. Approximately 80 cassette tapes were sitting in a box. Each is labeled with a date, the subject of a series of interviews, and information about the interviewer and interviewee. The staff member was amazed that Special Collections had cassette tapes, and he even asked if I knew what a cassette tape was. I was born in 1989, and in the early 1990s thought making mixed-tapes was amazing, so I definitely know what a cassette is. But… there are many out there that may not know what a cassette is.


Here is a cassette tape. This is an analog magnetic tape recording designed to record and playback audio (many of use used to have to run to a machine and hit record to “borrow” our favorite songs from a radio station, long before digital downloads). This format was released in 1962 by Philips (via Belgium). Above, you’ll see the two spools in the cassette that wind the polyester type plastic tape. As the tape runs across the bottom, machines would pick up the sound and playback whatever was recorded.

If you have never heard of a cassette tape, this is probably because they fell out of popularity when the CD entered the market. [And if you do not know what a CD is, that is probably because online mp3 sales and other digital media sources have slowly taken over CD sales]. Don’t feel bad. As technology progresses, so does formatting.

“What do you do with them?”

Special Collections keeps archival materials of all formats. One of the current goals of the archive is to begin migrating older formats to newer standards. In many boxes within our collections the master (or original) a/v item is stored next to an access copy that has been migrated to a new format. Thus, an old cassette may be housed with a CD access copy. That CD access copy, in the future, will likely be converted to a digital platform and housed online for easier access for researchers. Yet there will always be lovely, old, wonderful cassettes waiting to have their voices heard in the archives.

But, don’t count cassette tapes out yet. In 2014, National Audio Company produced “Awesome Mix #1” — a cassette that mirrors the cassette Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) listens to in the hit film Guardians of the Galaxy. Sales soared, proving that while this may be an older format, there are still plenty of people out there that are willing to purchase and play this format.


And, if you are suddenly wondering what you can play a cassette tape on, I suggest you begin looking for a traditional Walkman. All in all, I was excited to see another human being downstairs. It was even more fun to discuss that cassette tapes ARE still around and that they’ll always, at least for researchers and archival purposes, be sitting in the shadows waiting to be played.


People’s History of Tucson

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© 1977 Tucson Community Development/Design Center

For the past few weeks, I’ve been dedicating the majority of my hours at work to processing the Chafee architectural collection. The collection is the largest I’ve worked on so far at 43 boxes, and as I work through the papers, I often find some real treasures. Since I found it months ago, I’ve been intrigued by one item in particular, a newspaper sized comic produced in 1977 by the Tucson Community Development/Design Center (TCDC) called People’s Urban History of Tucson. The comic explains the history of the development of Tucson with vivid images from the point of view of Tucson’s lower-income and marginalized communities instead of telling the usual dominant narrative of our town’s history.


I was curious about the TCDC itself, so I did some online sleuthing. It turns out, the TCDC was a non-profit architectural planning, design, and research firm that worked to serve low-income communities, and contributed to and completed a number of projects between 1973 and 1983 such as the Lalo Guerrero project in Barrio Viejo that provides low-income housing to the elderly. The organization even sued a local politician for classifying a neighborhood as “blighted” which allowed the city to use public funds to build a luxury apartment complex for winter visitors.chafee_urban history_001

However, the organization also worked on graphic design projects like the People’s History of Tucson that were meant to educate the public about local housing laws and history, and about politicians working with corporations to displace low-income people in the downtown area in order to open up land for development. I was lucky, because we actually had some of those other pamphlets in our holdings here at Special Collections. In our pamphlets collection, we had two issues of a newsletter called “The True News” (“Los Hechos” in Spanish).

I started to wonder if maybe Judith Chafee did any work for the TCDC or if the comic just drew her in, as it did with me. Maybe she was friends with one of the members of the organization, or maybe, as an architect, she was concerned about how economic policies affect who can afford to buy a house. Either way, I was so happy to get to learn a little bit about housing policy in 1970s Tucson, and I can’t wait for the next treasure I find in this collection.

3 Tips to Prepare You for Archival Research

I wasn’t always an archivist. If you’d told me three years ago that today I’d be sitting in a special collections library, processing archival papers, and preparing for my last semester of grad school, I would have laughed. Like this perhaps:

And though I won’t bore you with the story of how I became an archivist (this week, anyhow), I’m not yet far enough into the world of folders and finding aids to have forgotten how confusing archives can seem to outsiders. So this week I am sharing three tips, from my own experience as an archivist and as a researcher, for archival research.

1. Have a short, clear list of materials you want to see – even if you’re not sure what you want to see!

For many of us in the humanities and social sciences, research involves a good deal of wandering. As ideas coalesce in our minds, we page through notebooks, newspapers, journals, photo albums – all to get a sense of what materials are out there and how our ideas fit into the larger scheme of things. Unfortunately, most archives aren’t set up for wandering. Our stacks are closed, our containers opaque. We need the names of collections or other record groups you want to see. Think of it like booking a flight: You’re free to wander the city once you get there, but the airline can’t give you a ticket unless you give them a destination.

I understand how tough this can be. I conducted preliminary research in quite a few archives this summer, each time with only a vague sense of what I was looking for. At the same time, I was an intern in a large national archive and I understood that an archives’ holdings might be massive, or stored off-site, and so it’s impossible for the archivists to wander the stacks on your behalf. I felt stuck between the realities of research and the pragmatics of archival practice. All the same, I got the best results by starting off with a concrete list of 3-5 boxes I wanted to see.

And on the topic of requests: Make sure your request for materials includes the collection name and box number. Some archival collections have hundreds, if not thousands of boxes, and the archivist is unlikely to have supernatural knowledge of which boxes are of interest to you.

I know at this point you’re probably worried. What if the materials you select aren’t what you need? In fact, this is the norm rather than the exception. It’s rare a researcher opens a box, pulls out the first folder, and exclaims, “I’ve found it!” Archival research takes time. Archivists know this. We’re happy to help; we just need to know where to start.

2. Talk to the archivist.

We get it. Academia is a wasteland of scarcity and you want to be the first person to prove Gertrude Stein took two lumps of sugar in her tea, not one. When the archivist asks you about your project,  you shuffle papers around and get nervous. Will the archivist broadcast your research to everyone else in the room? Is this the moment an evil, tenured doppelgänger steals your work?

Hint: Disguising yourself for a visit to the archives will result in more questions from the archivist, not less.

The truth is that archivists discuss their ethical obligations to researchers frequently and in-depth. Most archivists believe it is wrong to share information on your research without your express consent. If you’re unsure where the archivist or institution stands on these matters, ask – and ask if they have a printed privacy policy you can keep for your own records. Before treating the archivist like a walking information leak, find out if the paranoia is warranted.

Archivists’ trustworthiness aside, it’s easier for us to help you find relevant materials if we understand your project. So, let’s say you’re on the hunt to prove the two lump hypothesis. You arrive at the archives, cagey and shrouded in mystery. You request all the Stein papers, the Toklas papers, and a Virginia Woolf photo album to throw others off the trail. After days of looking for evidence in your favor, you return to your office dejected. If only you’d talked to the archivist you might have known that the archive holds the Surreal Sips Tea Company records – including information on literary celebrity advertisement ideas. Astonishing.

Archivists spend each day learning about their repository’s holdings. Sure, they might not be able to name every collection but over time they’ve learned how collections connect to one another – often in surprising or unpredictable ways. If you describe your research to us and help us understand your goals for your time in the archives, we can point you to resources that online searches might miss.

(And based on this poem, the two lump hypothesis seems reasonable.)

3. Don’t judge a record by its record-ness.

Archives are complicated places. Materials from various individuals, businesses, government agencies, and collecting projects often stream into one archival repository. Those materials are then sorted, arranged, and described – often based on a combination of archival standards and local habit. A single collection can represent many entities, organizations, and initiatives which may have worked collaboratively or antagonistically. How records came to us, how they relate to one another, and how archivists have shaped or rearranged collections are important things to know. It might seem like Gertrude kept her correspondence in alphabetical order, but it’s more likely an archivist rearranged it for your ease. Maybe the correspondence was gleaned from smaller collections, to help create a more cohesive, complete resource on Gertrude’s life. Archival records have complicated lives of their own.

I’m something of an archives agnostic: I don’t necessarily believe archives can tell us the truth about history, or provide definitive proof of how things happened- but I do believe they can tell us compelling stories which are as important as ‘the facts.’ Sometimes those stories are told by what an archive doesn’t have, or how it doesn’t describe materials. By talking to the archivist about the materials you are researching, looking at the finding aid, and comparing holdings at other repositories, you can often gain a more nuanced understanding of the materials in front of you. Surprises await when you follow the story of archival materials, rather than treating them as mere evidence of tales told elsewhere.