Recently, I was assigned to conduct an inventory of tapes from our old backup system. These tapes date as far back as 2015 and there were quite a few of them. They were stored in a large fireproof safe, similar to the one in the picture.

A stinky vault

Upon opening the vault, I immediately noticed a strange smell in the air. It was similar to the smell of an old Polaroid instant picture being cut open or acetone being poured on Styrofoam. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but a few hours later, the smell was still lingering in my nose.

Anyone else ever cut one of these open?

I started to wonder, “What is that smell?” According to the Council on Library and Information Resources, an independent nonprofit organization, magnetic tape binders can degrade over time, especially in the presence of moisture. They describe the smell as similar to vinegar.

I also discovered a table from archives.gov that explains how to identify different types of magnetic storage issues and what actions to take for each type. I couldn’t find “Polaroid smell” on the list, but the description of the crayon or wax smell they give might match what I was experiencing. It’s amusing to note that the recommended solution for this issue is to “bake” the tapes in an oven.

I haven’t posted in a while and I thought this would be an interesting topic to share.