Going off-topic today to share what I’ve been working on at my day job! It’s tangential to what I usually talk about here, so I figured y’all might enjoy it.
I’m a librarian in the Washington DC area, and for years, my library has been working on a project to preserve our collection of VHS tapes. This week, we finished digitizing the last videotape on-site for a total of 2250 videos that we can make available to our patrons again.
We have a collection of over 8000 VHS tapes, including lots of documentaries and educational films. For obvious reasons, our patrons can’t access them anymore. VHS is undergoing what has been called “degralescence” – degradation and obsolescence. The tapes are deteriorating, and the format is becoming more obsolete. Fewer new TVs even have the video inputs for VHS players.
For the most part, these tapes aren’t unique. They’re commercial videotapes, which means compared to one-of-a-kind video collections, they’re a low priority to digitize. But if we don’t do it, who will? If not now, when? So we did it.
Under Section 108© of US copyright law, libraries are allowed to make a reproduction of a copyrighted work, as long as 1) there are no new replacements for sale and 2) the original format is degrading, damaged, or obsolete. There’s more to it than that, but basically, as far as VHS is concerned, if it’s not being sold anymore, we can digitize it!
With lots of help from our student staff, we audited the collection and found that we had about 4000 videos that qualified. A huge chunk of those were being kept in off-site storage. The remaining 2200+ were on-site, and that’s what we finished digitizing this week.
It took a lot of time. VHS digitization happens in real-time, so an hour-long tape takes one hour to capture.
In total, that comes out to 37 TB of video, compressed! Here’s our storage arrays:
This is a big achievement for us, and it hasn’t been an automatic process. Preservation takes work. There’s a lot of human labor involved, especially in A/V preservation, with manual processing and attention needed for individual videos. We listened to experts and found how to make it work in our time and budget.
The project is still ongoing. In addition to everything we have to digitize from off-site storage, we have to keep maintaining the digital video collection. Digital storage is volatile, and we have to ensure we have backups and that we keep it in an accessible format. Preservation is never in the past tense. A thing is never preserved. We’re always preserving.
This has been a huge team effort across the library. These projects don’t happen alone, and I want to stress how much the whole library contributed to this!
absolutely incredible you funky little archivists
Librarians are heroes.