At-risk VHS collections & the NYU solution

VHS Tapes on Library ShelvesLike many institutions of our size (or larger), my library has a large collection of commercially produced VHS tapes. Many of these titles are out of print, yet still heavily used for teaching and research. And as technology is ever-changing, what used to be a collections bragging point has now become an albatross, and for years we haven’t had much of a notion of how to address the issue. However, developments in the archival and fair use circles in the past two years have slowly revealed a possible solution.

I’ve written before about the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries, and wondered how this new set of guidelines would support the work and processes already in play. At the time, entities such as the Chronicle for Higher Education predicted that the Code would “solve the problem” of VHS, however it is not clear that this document has had such a direct impact. Institutions have remained slow to publicly adopt and advocate for a change in practice.

Interestingly,  New York University was quietly working on their own, more direct solution to the “VHS problem,” supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation. In 2012 they published  Video at Risk: Strategies for Preserving Commercial Video Collections in Research Libraries. The guidelines [PDF 406KB] provide more specific interpretation on the clauses within the copyright law that allow for archival preservation of copyrighted materials. I had reviewed the project information when I heard about it from CCUMC and other mailing lists last year, and was further interested after hearing Howard Besser speak about the Video at Risk project at the National Media Market last fall.

Although the preservation allowance within copyright law isn’t a complete solution for our VHS problem, the Video at Risk guidelines in combination with the Code present a groundwork I hope we can use to build a collections policy around these items. We’ve already begun to replace VHS titles in other formats when possible. The next step will be weeding the VHS collections to remove items that are no longer meeting current needs (including federal government documents on VHS and films about computer technology from the 1980’s). We will also develop a framework for justifying digital preservation of remaining out-of-print VHS titles where damage can be proven. Hopefully, within the next year or so the VHS format will become officially obsolete, which will further allow libraries and archives to justify long-term preservation of these materials in an accessible form.

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