By David Rodriguez
In the era of streaming services like Kanopy and Netflix becoming the norm for how people access video content, it’s easy to forget just how much material is still confined to legacy AV formats. VHS is one such format–one that has played a huge role in academic and public library collections for over 40 years. First introduced in 1976, VHS cassettes were to become the internationally adopted standard for home-video exhibition and recording (but not without a well-known “format war” with the Betamax system). Eventually, the introduction and dominance of digital formats like DVD and Blu-Ray in late 1990s and early 2000s swept the cassette market into relative obsolescence. However, because of the long legacy of VHS and the residual demand for VCR technology, playback equipment was still manufactured until 2016. In the many years that VHS stood as the preeminent home-video format, libraries across the world acquired millions of cassettes spanning educational programs, documentaries, and feature films. They have become a major component of library collections that serve a wide variety of patron needs.
In considering how to contextualize and prioritize preservation of these collections within the Library, it’s helpful to acknowledge that the stewardship of non-print resources comes with its own unique set of challenges. While the inks and pigments on paper and in books can remain readable by the naked human eye for hundreds if not thousands of years, magnetic media formats like VHS are both inscrutable without technological mediation and subject to a much, much shorter shelf life. How these media are stored, their frequency of use, and the condition of the equipment they have been run through all bear heavily on how long they will remain usable. But even liberal estimates put most library VHS collections in a rather urgent position. With the end of VCR manufacturing and the rate of physical decay inherent to the format, libraries need to act now if they want to ensure these collections are not lost to decomposition and technological obsolescence.
So what are the available options for libraries seeking to tackle this problem? In the United States, libraries and archives are granted a number of useful rights under Section 108 of the Copyright Act. The statute allows such institutions to create “preservation copies” of collection materials which have become obsolete and for which there is no new, non-obsolete replacement available (for example, a given VHS title has not been re-released on DVD, Blu-Ray, or other digital format). In contemporary practice, preservation copies are created by digitizing the material and migrating the content to a new carrier like a DVD or into digital storage. Of course, this is easier said than done, and this step often prohibits many organizations from capitalizing on the privileges granted by Section 108 due to technological, financial, or other resource limitations. Thankfully, FSU Libraries has done well in retaining and maintaining a good deal of its legacy media technology and is now in the process of systematically reviewing, replacing, and, when appropriate, creating preservation copies of its nearly 4,000 holdings on VHS.
The work involved is daunting, complex, and requires collaboration across several library divisions. Externally, we are very excited to have joined the Academic Libraries Video Trust (ALVT), a new initiative launched in 2018 by the National Media Market. ALVT provides member organizations with a shared cloud-storage repository and clearinghouse for digitized content created under Section 108. Additionally, it allows FSU to make its collections part of broader efforts to preserve the wealth of magnetic media materials held in libraries and archives all over the country by allowing other member libraries access to its digitized materials. This “sharing” of Section 108-compliant holdings is enormously beneficial insofar as de-duplicating digitization efforts across institutions. In joining ALVT, the Library is greatly increasing the impact and value of its collections while ensuring they will remain accessible to future students, faculty, and researchers. We hope to provide updates and more detailed technical and legal insights as the project progresses in the hopes of helping others interested in these kinds of initiatives.