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Information Management - Information Matters

Managing Audio-Visual Records in the Government of Canada




1. Identifying audio-visual records

What is an audio-visual record?

Audio-visual media
Motion picture film
Magnetic tape

Uses of audio-visual records
Ownership and copyright
Legislation and policy

2. Organizing audio-visual records

Locating audio-visual records
Assigning a number
Describing audio-visual records
Creating an index
Identifying master elements
Labelling audio-visual records
Cross-referencing related information

3. Protecting audio-visual records

Media format
Obsolete formats
Storage tips
Inspecting for damage and deterioration

4. Retaining and disposing of audio-visual records


Retention periods
Dormant storage


When can an audio-visual records be disposed of?
Transitory audio-visual records
Multiple copies
Destroying records

Archival records
Need advice?



The National Archives of Canada acquires, preserves and makes available records of national significance. The National Archives also provides a comprehensive program to help federal government institutions and ministers' offices manage their records.

The program includes advice on standards and practices for the management of information; management and protection of government information through a national network of records centres; and, direction and assistance in planning the disposition of institutional records.

To ensure that there is a consistent approach to information management within the government, the National Archives investigates the impact of emerging technologies, develops standards and practices, and produces technical handbooks.

Managing Audio-visual Records in the Government of Canada is one of a series of handbooks on records and information management. It was written by Kathleen Owens, in consultation with audio?visual archivists and conservation experts at the National Archives of Canada. We welcome your comments or questions about this handbook - or about other information management issues. Please address them to:

Government Information Management Office
Library and Archives Canada
Telephone: 819-934-7519
Fax: 819-934-7534

Also available:

Guidelines for Managing Recorded Information in a Minister's Office
Managing Photographic Records in the Government of Canada
Managing Your Computer Directories and Files


Audio-visual technology has provided government employees with a wiser range of options in creating and collecting information. Sound and moving images captured on film, tape and disc have become important sources of government information, just like any paper or computer record. Throughout the Government of Canada, untold numbers of audio-visual records provide a unique perspective on federal activities, programs and policies.

Managing the overwhelming mass of information produced in all media is a challenging responsibility shared by all government institutions. Information management is more than just a legislative and policy requirement; it promotes the efficiency of government operations by ensuring that information is available when it is needed, and is disposed of when it is not. Following good information management practices also enables government institutions to preserve their archival and historical records for future generations of Canadians.

While the same management principles apply to all forms of information, each medium has specific characteristics and requirements. This handbook was prepared by the National Archives of Canada to help government employees manage audio-visual information effectively. It contains advice on how to:

  • IDENTIFY audio-visual records in a government institution
  • ORGANIZE audio-visual records for retrieval and use
  • PROTECT audio-visual records against damage and loss
  • plan the RETENTION and DISPOSITION of audio-visual records.

The Appendices contain a sample audio-visual record form, a list of suppliers, a glossary of audio?visual terms and a reading list.

1 Identifying audio-visual records

Although films, tapes and discs can be found throughout the government, many departments and agencies do not recognize these audio-visual materials as records. Most departmental records offices have not included audio-visual records in their corporate inventory of information holdings or records systems.

The first step towards managing the audio-visual records in any government institution is a good understanding of these records - What are they? What are the different kinds of audio?visual media? How are they used? The following will help you to recognize and identify the audio-visual records in your institution.

What is an audio-visual record?

An audio-visual record is defined as a document that contains government information in the form of moving images and/or sound.

In many ways, audio-visual records are distinctly different from traditional textual sources of government information. For example, although the printed page can preserve the words of a minister's speech, a videotape will reveal what was actually said, including the speaker's intonation, appearance, facial expressions and gestures. Audio-visual records are particularly suited to recreating events; they can show us people, places and things we could not experience firsthand. Motion picture films, magnetic tapes and discs are also designed to reach a mass audience and can be powerful communication tools.

Photograph - 8mm, 16mm and 35mm film

Film is identified by its width or guage: 8mm, 16mm and 35mm formats are shown.

Audio-visual media

Although all audio-visual records rely on some form of playback equipment in order to be seen and heard, the term "audio-visual" encompasses a wide variety of recording technologies and formats. A familiarity with audio-visual media - the material upon which the moving images and sounds are recorded - will help you to recognize these records in your institution.

There are three categories of audio-visual media:

Motion picture film, also called cinematographic film, contains visual information and sound as a sequence of photographic images on a perforated plastic strip. When projected (usually at 24 frames per second), these images appear as continuous motion. Contemporary films are usually in colour, although black-and-white film is sometimes used for aesthetic reasons or scientific applications.

Motion picture film is usually wound on reels and stored in flat circular canisters. Film formats are standardized and are identified by their gauge (i.e., the width of the film). The formats most commonly found in government institutions are 35mm and 16mm; you may also find 8mm and super 8mm.

Magnetic tape, including both videotape and audiotape, is a polyester-based tape coated with iron-oxide particles. By magnetizing these particles, images and sound are recorded onto the tape as electronic signals can be instantly played back, erased and rerecorded. Since the 1960s, magnetic tape has become the most popular recording medium, often replacing film and disc.

Magnetic tape is kept on open reels, cassettes and cartridges and is made in a range of widths up to two inches. Tape technology changes rapidly and there is little compatibility among formats. North American tapes rely on a standard NTSC recording system which is not compatible with European PAL and SECAM standards. The current popular magnetic tape format include:


  • open-reel 1/4-inch audiotape
  • 1/4-inch audio cassette (Philips)
  • mini cassette
  • digital audiotape (DAT)


  • open-reel videotape
  • ½-inch video cassette  -  VHS
  • 3/4-inch U-matic
  • 1-inch C-format videotape
  • Video 8, High 8
  • ½-inch Betacam SP (analogue and digital)

Discs contain sound and visual information in a continuous groove that is tracked by a stylus or laser. Early phonographic discs varied in size and could be made of wax, glass, acetate or even paper. Contemporary phonographic discs are made of vinyl compounds; the 12-inch LP format is standard. In recent years, there has been a decline in popularity of phonographic discs in favour of magnetic tape and compact discs (CDs).

Popular video formats

Popular video formats.

Optical discs are a recent innovation involving a polycarbonate-based disc that is laminated with aluminum and lacquer. Optical discs designed for audio-visual applications include the 4 3/4-inch CD used for digital music recordings, and the 12-inch videodisc used for moving image productions and interactive video programs.

The recommendations in this handbook refer specifically to audio-visual media that contain moving image and sound information. They do not apply to film strips, still photographic film, microfilm or to magnetic tapes and discs that store computer data.

Uses of audio-visual records

The Government of Canada has used audio-visual media to create records since the turn of the century. Early examples include scenic films produced by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau. These films were exhibited abroad to promote Canadian products and industries to international audiences, and encourage immigration and tourism. Government institutions also used film to record significant activities (for example, exploration of the Canadian Arctic) and official events (Royal visits). During the war years, government-produced discs and film played an important role in transmitting news from the front.

As audio-visual technology became cheaper and easier to use, government employees discovered its practical applications in their daily work - tape recorders helped to document the proceedings of royal commissions, meetings, hearings and conferences, and could even take telephone messages. The introduction of commercial videocassettes in the 1970s heralded a new era of audio-visual production and record creation in the federal departments and agencies.

Today, audio-visual records are created and collected in connection with a broad range of government activities - from information services, training and administration, to research and program delivery. Common uses of audio-visual records include:

  • conferences, speeches, hearings and meetings
  • media monitoring
  • dictation tapes, video conferencing
  • oral history interviews with public officials
  • telephone messages and conversations
  • government advertising, promotion and public service announcements
  • public information products
  • instructional, safety and training materials
  • documentation of scientific experiments and activities
  • surveillance and security tapes
  • entertainment.

Any motion picture film, videotape, audiotape or disc created or collected as part of the business of government is considered to be a record, and must be managed according to good information management practices.

Ownership and copyright

It is important to remember that audio-visual records created or collected in the course of government work belong to the Government of Canada, and not to individual employees. Crown ownership also applies to audio-visual works created on the government's behalf by private-sector producers, unless contractual documents indicate otherwise.

Control over the exhibition and reproduction of audio-visual records will depend on the assignment of copyright. Permission may be required when employees wish to record broadcast programming off-air, make duplicate copies, or pay audio-visual works before an audience. It is important to note copyright restrictions, particularly for records that were not created or sponsored by a federal government department.

Legislation and policy

Audio-visual records are governed by the same acts and policies that apply to all government information. These include:

  • Management of Government Information Holdings Policy
  • Security Policy
  • Communications Policy
  • National Archives of Canada Act
  • Access to Information Act
  • Privacy Act.

For advice on the specific application of information laws and policies, contact the Administrative Policy Branch at Treasury Board.

2 Organizing audio-visual records

Government institutions need to organize their records so they can identify, locate and retrieve information quickly and accurately. The needs of the institution and the record users should dictate how audio-visual records are organized. This does not mean reinventing the wheel for each audio?visual collection. Methods of organizing audio-visual records have already been developed and are in use today throughout the federal government. This section offers some tips on organizing audio-visual records.

Locating audio-visual records

While many government institutions maintain an inventory of their corporate information holdings, audio-visual records are often overlooked. For this reason, records management staff may find it worthwhile to locate all films, discs, videotape and audiotape kept in their government institution, in order to integrate these records into departmental records management systems and disposition plans.

Often, audio-visual records are stored together in "collections." Items in a collection may share a common origin or function, cover a similar subject, or simply be kept together for the sake of convenience. Look for audio-visual collections in media libraries, resource centres, training centres, as well as media monitoring and communications offices. You may also find individual films, tapes and discs filed with paper records or maintained in operational offices.

Once audio-visual holdings are located, account for these records in the institution's records management system or in an inventory of information holdings. For each collection or group of audio-visual records, list details such as:

  • responsible department, branch or division
  • collection name and purpose
  • general contents, subjects covered
  • creator, producer or source of records
  • copyright, exhibition rights
  • storage location
  • quantity
  • media formats
  • existence of copies
  • classification system used
  • related records or documentation
  • retention period

Assigning a number

To best control an audio-visual collection, each cassette, tape, film or disc is assigned a unique number, often called the shelf number. The numbering system dictates the physical order in which audio-visual records are stored, and is used to locate records and control their circulation. Item-level numbering of audio-visual records is essential for many automated indexes and retrieval tools.

It is best to keep the numbering system simple. Sequential numbering is the easiest to follow, and allows for infinite growth as new records are added to the collection. One variation is to incorporate a meaningful prefix into the sequential numbering - for example, if the year of production (in this case 1995) is deemed important, number of the records 95-001, 95-002, 95-003, etc. When audio?visual records are directly related to a specific project, activity or case file, using the same classification number as the paper records can provide a useful link.

Barcode numbering is another popular practice, especially for large collections. Although barcode readers are an extra expense, they can also serve as security tags.

Barcode numbering

Barcode numbering can help keep collections of audio-visual records under control.

Describing audio-visual records

Because an audio-visual record is machine-readable, users must view or listen to it using some form of playback equipment in order to identify it. A more efficient way to identify the audio-visual record is to read a description of its contents, in the same way a caption identifies a photograph. Accurate descriptions can save time searching for the right record. Unidentified audio-visual records have little value to the institution or to future users.

While there is no single method for describing films, tapes and discs, good descriptions will contain three components:

  • an indication of the contents (e.g., title, summary)
  • production details (e.g., producer, year)
  • technical features (e.g., format, running time).

For example, the following description of a Department of National Defence film (courtesy of National Film Board) contains enough detail for most users to decide if they need to see it.

The Uncalculated Risk (motion picture) Canada. Department of National Defence.
Produced by Hyde Park Film Productions 1980.
18 min 52 sec, sound, colour, 16mm
Summary: A dramatic film showing the consequences of the careless handling of small arms and explosives, based on actual accidents taken from the records of the Director, Ammunitions Operations.

The audio-visual record form provided in the Appendices is a sample of the kind of information that can be used to describe these records. The amount of descriptive detail needed will vary - some fields may not be relevant, others may need to be added. Government institutions should try to be consistent in the way they describe their audio-visual records.

Libraries and archives have developed standards for describing audio-visual records that may be useful for government collections. Descriptive cataloguing rules for audio-visual materials include the International Standard Bibliographic Description for Non-book Materials ISBD (NBM), the Revised Anglo American Cataloguing Rules and those issued by the U.S. Library of Congress. These are available through most government libraries and can be tailored to suit the specific needs of an audio-visual collection.

Creating an index

An index is a valuable tool for locating and retrieving audio-visual records, especially in large collections that are arranged by number. The index should reflect real retrieval needs - do users search for records by their title, subject, speaker or program activity? Subject indexing is particularly useful for diverse collections of audio-visual materials such as a media monitoring collection. Using a subject index, users can search for records under specific subject headings or keywords. With some automated systems, users can also do free-text searching. Remember that the descriptive information created about each audio-visual record provides the foundation of its index.

In many government institutions, traditional index cards or paper lists have been replaced by automated indexes which are faster, more flexible and easier to access. Some commercial software packages are designed specifically for indexing audio-visual records, although most database packages can be adapted for this purpose.

Identifying master elements

Distinguishing between master (original) elements and copies in an audio-visual collection is a good way to protect the most important audio-visual information. This is necessary because each copy or "generation" of an analogue recording will diminish in quality, resulting in unclear images and sound.

It is especially important to locate and identify master elements of government audio-visual productions done in-house and by private-sector production companies.

Identify the following master elements among your audio-visual records.

Motion picture film - Master film elements include: an original positive, a duplicate negative, A and B rolls, sound track, and one reference print. Always use an internegative for subsequent printing and a release print for projection. For a film collection that consists only of release prints, identify the best print and label it the master. Making a reference copy of film records on ½-inch videocassette is also a good idea, as long as the film is in suitable shape to be copied.

Magnetic tape (audio and video) - Identify the original recording or earliest generation in both audio and video media. Make sure that the masters of government productions are preserved in broadcast quality format.

Disc - Since most CDs and vinyl LP discs are commercially pre-recorded, government institutions are unlikely to possess the audiotape masters of these discs.

Photograph of a film leader with label

Label film leader with a permanent film-marking pen.

Labelling audio-visual records

For correct identification, permanently label audio-visual records and their containers with shelf number, title, contents and other essential information. Archival suppliers can provide permanent marking pends which do not fade, and adhesive labels which will not come off over time. When generating labels using a personal computer, remember that the inks used in many dot-matrix printers can fade in a few years. More labelling tips follow.

Motion picture film - With a permanent film-marking pen, write the film's title, shelf number and any other important information on the white head leader, or on an acid-free ID tag. Label the film canister so that the number is readable when it is stacked horizontally. Master elements should also be clearly labelled on the outside of the film can. Colour-coded film cans will also help to distinguish master elements.

Videotape - Most video cassettes have room for an adhesive label on the plastic shell or on the container. When multiple recordings appear on one cassette, it is a good practice to list the contents and respective running times on the label. This will make searching for particular items easier. The shelf number should be visible on the spine of the cassette's container. When making video records, you can also create labels on-screen using a character generator. Always insert colour bars, a title frame, and 10 seconds of black at the beginning of each tape. At the end of the recording, be sure to include production credits and copyright information.

Audiotape - Most tape boxes have space to write the tape's contents and running time. Make a note of the recording speed and the number of tracks recorded. Number the box so the number is visible on the outside. When making audiotape records, voice label the beginning of each tape by identifying the speakers, data and circumstances of the recording.

Disc - Identify sides A and B, and the individual cuts and running times, on the centre label of the disc itself. Number the LP or videodisc sleeve, or the CD jewel case.

Cross-referencing related information

Audio-visual records can also be related to other information stored elsewhere. For example, a paper file in your records office may chronicle the business of a departmental committee, while audiotapes of the meetings are kept in the committee secretary's office. It is a good practice to cross-reference related records in all media. This will help record users, and the disposition process.

Related information considered important for audio-visual records includes:

  • scripts, scenarios, shotlists
  • verbatim transcripts
  • production files (including contracts, press releases and copyright information)
  • indexes, inventories, finding aids and guides
  • relevant case and subject files.

3 Protecting audio-visual records

How long will audio-visual records last? The answer depends on a number of factors that influence the survival and integrity of audio-visual information - the media format, how records are handled, and storage conditions. Preventing unnecessary damage, deterioration and loss of audio-visual records throughout their lifecycle will ensure that information is available for as long as it is needed.

Media format

The media format used to record audio-visual information can greatly affect its usability later on. This is because some media formats survive better than others in long-term storage. In addition, information recorded on an obsolete format may become difficult to access when play back equipment and materials become scarce.

Producers and creators of audio-visual records can help prolong the life of important records by recording on superior formats using professional equipment. Well-known brands of magnetic tape are less likely to have manufacturing faults than can cause dropouts or other glitches. For best results, use new blank tapes rather than taping over previously recorded materials.


  • To create broadcast-quality video records and preservation masters, use a professional format (½-inch Betacam-SP, 3/4-inch U-matic or 1-inch C-format tapes) and an experienced videographer.
  • Record off-air video material at SP (standard speed) on videocassettes no longer than 90 minutes.


  • When making sound recordings, 1/4-inch audiotape is considered superior to the Philips audiocassette or mini-cassette. Choose a polyester tape that is 1 or 1.5 mil thick.
  • Recording speed should be no slower than 7.5 IPS (inches per second) for best results.
  • If possible, use a uni-directional microphone and a professional tape deck.
  • Cassettes that are 90 minutes or longer are not recommended for records which are to be kept for a long time.

Motion picture film

  • Always use recent film stock to create film records; avoid raw stock that has been stored unfrozen for more than six months.

Obsolete formats

Rapid changes in audio-visual technology lead to new products that can quickly dominate the marketplace, making it difficult to find supplies and equipment for older - incompatible - formats. The ½-inch Beta® videocassette, 8mm film or 8-track audiocassette are examples of recently superseded audio-visual formats. Information that is stored on obsolete formats will be more difficult to access and use in time.

Although it is not always possible to predict the lifespan of a particular format, try to use popular formats for creating audio-visual records. Copying older audio-visual records to more recent formats is another way to preserve the usability of the information, however, keep in mind that the quality of analogue recordings will diminish with each generation. Contact the National Archives for advice on protection audio-visual materials that pre-date 1970, or if you have any of the following obsolete formats in your collection:

  • acetate discs
  • shellac discs
  • wire recordings
  • dictabelts
  • cylinder recordings
  • cellulose acetate audiotape
  • 2-inch quadruplex
  • videotape
  • ½-inch videotape Beta®
  • 8mm film
  • 9.5mm film
  • 28mm film
  • 35mm film.

Avoid damaging a disc's surface by touching only the edge and centre label

Avoid damaging a disc's surface by touching only the edge and centre label


All audio-visual media are vulnerable to physical damage from mishandling. Following these simple guidelines can help to protect records.

Never touch the recording surface. Fingerprints can leave a damaging residue on most formats of audio-visual media. When handling discs, touch only the edge and centre label. Handle film only by the edges and, if possible, wear lint-free cotton gloves. Audio and videocassettes are well protected by their plastic shell, but avoid touching the tape inside.

Prevent accidental erasure and dropouts. Remove the tab on video and audiocassettes to prevent a recording from being erased or taped over. Do not use the pause feature on VCRs or tape players for more than a few seconds at a time. As a precaution, keep tapes from coming in close contact with sources of magnetic fields such as transformers and generators.

Minimize handling of masters. In order to reduce the amount of wear on valuable records, identify master elements and store them carefully. Make reference copies for circulation and general playback. This practice will ensure that masters are in the best condition if additional copies are needed later on.

Keep it clean. Playback and handling areas should be kept as clean and dust-free as possible. Do not let film touch the floor or the rewind bench. Always clean discs before and after playback by wiping them with a clean dry cloth to gently remove dust. When wiping CDs and video discs, never use a circular motion - wipe in a straight line from the centre to the edge. Never use water to clean a disc.

Know how to use equipment. Although most audio-visual media are user-friendly, users should know how to operate equipment before handling audio-visual records. In a self-serve environment, post basic operating instructions near VCRs, tape players and other playback equipment. Check that film projectors are correctly threaded. When technical difficulties do occur, call a qualified technician.

Reshelve promptly. Be sure not to leave audio-visual records in playback equipment, in a sunny spot or near heat sources. Prompt reshelving will ensure the record will be there when it is needed again.


Since audio-visual records are machine-readable, it makes sense to keep playback equipment in good condition. In general, audio-visual equipment is best kept in a dark room with anti-static carpet. When not in use, turn off VCRs, projectors, monitors, loudspeakers, records players and tape decks, and cover with a dust cover. For magnetic tape players, regular maintenance such as tension adjustment and head cleaning should be done by a technician after every 1,000 hours of playback.


In general, audio-visual records will spend more time sitting on a shelf than they will in actual use. Where and how these audio-visual records are stored, even for a short time, can affect how well they play back. You can help preserve the integrity of your audio-visual information by storing film, tapes and discs in the right environment. The chart below outlines recommended storage conditions for audio-visual records. Remember that constant temperature and humidity are key to safekeeping.

Acceptable storage conditions for audio-visual records

  Temperature Relative humidity
Magnetic tape 18°C - 20°C 40% - 50%
Motion picture film 15°C - 25°C 20% - 50%
Discs 18°C 40% - 50%

Keep storage conditions consistent. Fluctuations in temperature in temperature (>4°C) and relative humidity (>5°C) can be harmful to audio-visual records. Choose a storage area away from heavy office traffic. An air conditioner or dehumidifier can help stabilize conditions. Monitor temperature and relative humidity (RH) with an instrument called a hygrothermograph.

Maintain a dust-free storage area. Regular housekeeping and air filters can reduce the amount of minute, airborne particles which can scratch audio-visual media and cause signal loss. Recordings can also be protected from dust by keeping them in closed containers.

A hygrothermograph

A hygrothermograph will monitor relative humidity in storage areas.

Store materials away from sources of light, heat and water. Block out harmful ultraviolet light by shading windows and installing UV light filters. Avoid locating storage areas in basements, attics or near heating vents, washrooms, sprinklers and water pipes.

Prohibit food and smoking in storage areas. Spilled drinks and food crumbs can contaminate audio-visual records and equipment, and may also attract insects. Cigarette ash is equally undesirable.


Always keep audio-visual records in closed - not airtight - containers to protect them from dust and physical damage. Good containers are made of materials considered safe for storage (for example, acid-free paperboard and non-corrosive metal). Certain plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene or polyester are also considered to be safe storage materials, but do not use containers made of polyvinylchloride (PVC). Always use clean, undamaged containers for storage - even a few rust spots on a metal film canister will accelerate the deterioration of the film inside. Be sure not to keep any shotlists or other papers inside the container; instead, put them in an envelope affixed to the outside. For information about obtaining containers, contact the suppliers listed in the Appendices.

Storage tips

Open reel audiotape - The audiotape should have at least two feet of leader at the head and tail, and should be wound tail-out on a take-up reel. Keep open reel audiotape in a clamshell-style tape box with a centre hub. Unless damaged, the original tape box is usually adequate - just make sure you remove any plastic bags or paper.

Audiocassettes - Forward your audiocassettes to the end of one side before storing. This can help relieve tape stresses, since the cassette will have to be rewound before it is played. Store audio cassettes in clean, plastic cases.

Videotape - Forward videocassettes to the end and store in their original sleeves or in non-PVC plastic cases. Always shelve videocassettes upright, with the full reel at the bottom; do not stack one on top of another. Open reel videotape should be wound on a reel and kept in an enclosed plastic case.

Shelved videotape

Shelve videotape upright in closed containers.

Motion picture film - Attaching several feet of white leader at the film's head and tail will guard against damage during lace-up and projection. Store your film on reels only if it is frequently projected; replace any bent, warped or broken reels. For less active film records, wind the film tail-out on plastic cores in tight, even rolls and secure the end with archival tape. It is essential to wind the film well for storage - loose rolls and protruding edges can result in cinching, tears and other visible damage. Store the film rolls in cans made of safe plastic or non-corrosive metal, or in acid?free film boxes. Do not seal cans or boxes with tape. Stack cans horizontally to prevent distortion.

Discs - Sleeve vinyl discs in acid-free, polyethylene liners and jackets. Always remove shrinkwrap on vinyl LPs because it can eventually distort discs. Store all discs upright on shelves, with vertical dividers for extra support. Keep CDs in their plastic jewel cases and place them upright on shelves.

Inspecting for damage and deterioration

Even with conscientious handling and appropriate storage conditions, it is a good idea to check the condition of audio-visual records periodically; this is especially true for large or inactive collections. With regular inspections (e.g., every three years), the early warning signs of deterioration will be detected before things progress so far that the record becomes unplayable. Inspect a sampling of records for the signs of damage and deterioration listed below. Keep a notation of the physical condition and playback performance of each inspected record:

  • poor sound
  • poor image quality
  • torn, scratched, shrunken, warped or brittle film
  • weak or broken splices
  • unusual odours (especially vinegar-like smell)
  • scratched discs
  • fungus, mould or flaking surfaces.

Separate any suspect material from the rest of the records. Do not attempt to play back.

Check with a qualified technician to see if damaged material can be salvaged by copying.

4 Retaining and disposing of audio-visual records

How long should government institutions keep audio-visual records? Can tapes be erased or reused? Deciding what to do with audio-visual records is important, especially when obsolete films, tapes and discs occupy valuable office space. The best way to control the accumulation of records is to plan for their retention and disposition. The organized retention and disposition of government information not only helps institutions to make the most efficient use of space and equipment, but also ensures that worthless records are destroyed, while records of enduring value are preserved.


Institutions need to keep audio-visual records only for as long as there continues to be an operational requirement to keep them. Retaining records that are not needed will only consume resources, and may impede the retrieval of more essential information.

  • Have the tapes, films or discs ceased to serve their original version?
  • Are they rarely or never consulted?
  • Are they out-of-date or been superseded by a newer version?
  • Are they unplayable because of an obsolete format?
  • Are they available elsewhere?

Where the answer to these question is yes, there is likely no operational reason to keep the audio?visual records. Bear in mind that some audio-visual records may need to be kept for legal reasons, as is the case when a film or tape is used as legal evidence or is itself a record of court proceedings. For additional guidance on the legal value of audio-visual records, consult legal counsel.

Retention periods

It is a good practice to plan how long to keep audio-visual records by establishing retention periods as early as possible. Retention periods will vary for each kind or collection of audio-visual records. For example, a routine surveillance videotape may only be needed for a few weeks. An instructional videotape on safety procedures, on the other hand, may be used for many years. Together with record users, information management staff can help set reasonable retention periods for audio-visual records.

Dormant storage

Retention plans typically outline suggested durations for active and dormant storage. When reference to a particular group of records becomes infrequent, many departments move them to an offsite storage location, usually a records centre. While this same practice can be applied to audio-visual records, be aware that films, magnetic tapes and discs must be stored under special conditions. Before moving audio-visual records, check that the record centre is equipped with the climate controls necessary for keeping these records.


What happens to records which are no longer needed by government institutions? In the Government of Canada, the disposition of records of government institutions and ministerial records is guided by the National Archives of Canada Act (1987). This Act requires government institutions to:

  • obtain the approval of the National Archivist before disposing of their records, and
  • transfer their archival and historical records to the National Archives.

The National Archives coordinates these two activities with each government institution by developing disposition plans. Information and records management staff should make sure that their institution's audio-visual records are included in these plans. This way, government information - in all media - related by program, function or activity can be disposed of in an integrated manner.

When can an audio-visual records be disposed of?

Once the retention period has expired and there is no longer any operational need to keep audio-visual records, they can be disposed of according to an approved disposition plan. In most institutions, records management staff are responsible for applying the terms and conditions of these plans. If you are unsure whether a plan exists for your records, contact the information management office in your department or agency.

The National Archivist has also pre-authorized the disposal of certain kinds of audio-visual records that have no enduring value. Permission is not required for the destruction of transitory records and multiple copies as outlined below.

Transitory audio-visual records

Transitory records are those records that are required only for a limited time to ensure the completion of a routine action or the preparation of a subsequent record. Transitory audio-visual records are the intermediate elements - created in the production of an audio-visual record - which are not required to reconstitute the final production. For example, during the production of a government film, the workprint, slashprint or air print is considered transitory as long as more valuable printing elements, such a positive composite print and camera original, are kept.

Multiple copies

Often, audio-visual collections will contain many identical copies or "dubs" of a particular film, video or sound record. For record-keeping purposes, it is not necessary to retain more than two identical copies of particular audio-visual work. However, be sure to keep two copies of all versions of a single production, even if the differences are minor.

Destroying records

Most audio-visual records destined for destruction will end up as bulk waste. Magnetic tapes can be erased with a degausser and reused, as long as they are still in good condition. In some instances, the silver particles from black-and-white motion picture film can be recovered. This can be a profitable option for institutions with significant quantities of silver-bearing, black-and-white film.

Archival records

Some audio-visual records have an enduring archival or historical value beyond their operational value to the institution. These records are identified by the National Archives through departmental disposition plans so that they can be preserved for the benefit of all Canadians.

Here are a few examples of government audio-visual records preserved by the National Archives:

  • House of Commons proceedings and National Press theatre conferences
  • masters of government sponsored information films and videos
  • speeches and interviews with officials about government programs.

Need advice?

If you have any questions about the disposition of audio-visual records, start by contacting the information/records manager in your institution. For more information, contact the Government Archives and Records Disposition Division at the National Archives of Canada.


  1. Audio-visual record form
  2. Suppliers
  3. Glossary of audio-visual terms
  4. Further reading

A Audio-visual record form

File number:_______________

AV number: _______________


Title: _________________________________________________

Part/section: ___________________________________________

Producer/broadcaster: ___________________________________

Sponsor: _____________________________________________

Credits: ______________________________________________

Production/recording date: ________________________________

Language: ____________________________________________

Subject description: _____________________________________


Notes: _______________________________________________


RUNNING TIME: _______________ (h/m/s)

Format: Film:


B Suppliers

Products for creating, organizing, storing and handling audio-visual materials can be purchased from a number of North American suppliers. The following list is provided for information only. It should NOT be considered an endorsement of any product or distributor by the Government of Canada.

Carr McLean
461 Horner Avenue
Toronto, Ontario
M8W 4X2

Kodak Canada, Inc.
3500 Eglington Avenue
Toronto, Ontario
M6M 1V3

University Products of Canada
BFB Sales Limited
6535 Millcreek Drive, Unit 8
Mississauga, Ontario
L5N 2M2

Gaylord Bros.
Box 4901
Syracuse, NY
13221, USA


C Glossary of audio-visual terms

The terms in this glossary relate to the management of audio-visual records. Definitions were formulated with the help of the following works:

British Standards Institution. BS 5196: 1975 Glossary of terms used in the motion-picture industry.

ISO: International Standard 5127/11 Documentation and information - vocabulary - part 11: Audio-visual documents.

AUDIO-VISUAL RECORD: Document that contains information in the form of moving images and sound, and that requires the use of equipment in order to be viewed or heard.

CAMERA ORIGINAL: Film which has been exposed in the camera.

CD (COMPACT DISC): Aluminum and polycarbonate disc containing digital sound recording.

CELLULOSE ACETATE: A plastic which replaced cellulose nitrate as the base for motion picture film. Cellulose acetate film is also called safety film.

CELLULOSE NITRATE: A plastic popularly used as a photographic film base until the early 1950s. Often referred to as nitrate film, it is chemically unstable and can be flammable.

CINEMATOGRAPHIC FILM: A transparent strip of plastic bearing a series of photographic images which, when projected, create the illusion of a moving picture. (Also called motion-picture film.)

CORE: A plastic cylinder on which film or magnetic tape is wound.

DISPOSITION: The final stage in the information lifecycle when records are either (a) transferred to the National Archives for preservation; (b) transferred outside the Government of Canada; or (c) destroyed.

DROPOUT: Signal loss on a magnetic recording.

DUB: The duplication of an electronic recording.

FORMAT: The physical dimensions of a recording medium, e.g., film gauge, tape width.

INTERNEGATIVE: A negative derived from an original reversal film.

LEADER: A blank strip of film or tape that is attached to an audio-visual document for protection during lace-up, and for identification. Film leader can be white, black or clear.

MAGNETIC TAPE: An iron-oxide coated plastic which records visual and auditory information and plays it back as an electronic signal (e.g. videotape and audiotape).

MASTER: Media elements which can be used to recreate the record.

MOTION PICTURE: See cinematographic film.

NEGATIVE FILM: Processed motion picture in which the light and dark tones of the image are the reverse of the original subject.

OUT-TAKE (OUTS): Film footage which is rejected during the editing process.

POSITIVE PRINT: A film whose colours and tonal values correspond to those of the original subject.

PRINTING ELEMENT: Film elements used to reproduce a positive copy of the final production.

PRINT-THROUGH: An electronic signal superimposed on adjacent layers of magnetic tape. Occurs when magnetic tape is left tightly wound over a period of time.

REEL: A flanged spool on which film or magnetic tape is wound.

RELEASE PRINT: A positive print of a film intended for distribution to the public.

SOUND RECORDING: Auditory signals encoded on magnetic tape or disc.

VCR (VIDEO CASSETTE RECORDER): The equipment used to record and play back video cassettes.

VIDEOTAPE: Magnetic tape on which visual and auditory signals are recorded and from which play back is possible.


D Further reading

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Engineering Operations Department, Recommended Practice for the Care, Handling & Storage of CBC-AV Magnetic Media.

Canadian Council of Archives. Basic Conservation of Archival Materials: A Guide. Ottawa: 1990.

Eastman Kodak Company: The Book of Film Care. Kodak Publication No. H-23, 1983