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 and Black 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!