Roughly 2,700 VHS tapes featuring titles like “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” “Toxic Zombies” and “Buried Alive” arrived at Sterling Memorial Library last week.

Yale has become the first institution in the country to actively collect VHS tapes, thanks to the initiative of Kaplanoff Librarian for American History David Gary and Aaron Pratt GRD ’16. Although the collection, which arrived late last week, is wide-ranging, a large portion consists of horror-genre movies, and most of the movies are from the 1970s and 80s.

According to Gary, VHS is a complicated technology — there are issues of preservation, cataloging, copyright and access. To acquire the tapes, Gary had to convince other University librarians to be willing to put in the effort to maintain and catalogue the thousands of tapes. Because VHS degrades easily, many of the tapes will likely be digitized, though copyright laws may prove to be an obstacle.

“VHS has been a major film format in the last quarter of the 20th century, and no one is taking it seriously as a medium [in academia],” Pratt said. “We got to talking about why this gap in film exists and how we could remedy it.”

Although some may think of the VHS as obsolete, it was revolutionary at the time that it was introduced, Pratt said. He explained that the social dynamics surrounding movies changed as film entered the home in a more private setting. Films became more available to adolescents — including films their parents were not keen on them watching — which led to a new era in targeted marketing from the movie industry.

The creation of the VHS also led to an explosion of the low-budget film, which could make large profits off rentals but not in theaters, Pratt said. Horror movies, in particular, thrived in this format. Not feeling compelled to meet the expectations of blockbusters, directors were able to showcase their artistic and often “weird,” creativity, he added.

Pratt and Gary found the VHSs by searching online collector Facebook groups. After receiving a response on one of their posts, the 2,700 tapes were purchased from a single collector in Dayton, Ohio.

VHS, unlike older 35 mm film, is not yet seen as a historical relic or used in mass circulation like the DVD, Pratt said. But in recent years, nostalgia for the medium has created a huge fan market, Gary said. With Yale now at the forefront of VHS collecting, the University is poised to capitalize on the market before the tapes become too expensive and impossible to find, he added.

Pratt, who taught a section of English 115 — “Literature Seminars” — in spring 2014 called “Terror and Horror in the Literary Imagination” said he found many of his students incorporating online VHS graphics and cover text into their papers to talk about marketing of the horror genre. He added that all Yale students will be able to take advantage of the primary sources in the new collection, though they will not be able to check them out of the library because they are considered rare materials and will need to be viewed in Manuscripts and Archives. Gary added that history and American Studies majors may be especially keen on looking at movies from the Reagan era, a period that is currently a hot topic of study for many historians.

Film and Media Studies major Emily Murphy ’17, who first became interested in film after watching VHS tapes of the Lion King, said she was not surprised to hear about Yale’s acquisition of the VHS collection.

“Yale has been committed to purchasing really obscure-ish films on 35 mm and DVDs,” she said. “We should apply the same standard to VHS tapes. This commitment to finding media services that you can’t get in other forms is important.”

Gary declined to comment on how expensive the collection is, although he said the offer was “altruistic” and much less expensive than buying each tape off Craigslist.

VHS research assistant Travis Brady ’18 said he has found a new appreciation for the VHS while working with Pratt and Gary. Although he said he barely remembers growing up with VHS tapes, he has found it rewarding to look through the piles of VHS boxes, many of which have “really cheesy” graphics and titles.

Gary added that it will take time to process all of the VHS material, and it may take a year until they are available for academic use by Yale affiliates. He added that, in the future, he hopes to find a donor or make a fellowship to continue the VHS collection.

The first VCR to use VHS was produced in 1976.

  • SeekerLancer

    VHS tapes did indeed have some amazing boxes. It was fun going into a rental store just to look sometimes. As a format for watching movies though, I can’t say I miss it. At all.

    • The

      I still watch it for titles that were put on DVD.

  • merope

    I hope the previous owner rewound them.

  • Caleb McCandless

    Long live the new flesh!

  • Bob George

    First? Please note: The ARChive of Contemporary Music in NYC has 30,000 + VHS video tapes in its Moving Image Collection and more than 25,000 + one-inch master tapes of music videos.
    #ARCnyc B.George, Director

  • deg farrelly

    “Yale has become the first institution in the country to actively collect VHS tapes” is a gross overstatement that deserves clarification by the author. VHS was the dominant media format not only for entertainment film but also for documentaries and educational titles as well from the mid-1970s through the 1980s and into the 1990s, before DVD became the dominant format. Media Librarians is academic institutions across the US “actively collected” in the VHS format. Arizona State University alone has more than 16,000 VHS titles in it’s media collection, even after replacing hundreds of titles on DVD and/or streaming formats. An entire industry developed for the support of VHS collection development, most notably the National Media Market, an annual event for the selection of video for academic collections.

    That Yale is acquiring and (it is hoped) preserving the indie and B movie content distributed in VHS is notable. But call it for what it really is!

    • Demi Monde

      A Johnny come lately! This article is laughable and shows woeful naivety and lack of awareness of other institutions’ collection development history. Gasp! There are even library collections that hold 3/4″ Umatic tapes, the original personal format from the 1960s. Someone seriously failed doing their homework.

    • Aaron Pratt

      Deg Farrelly & Bob George: the article, unfortunately, did not catch the nuance we worked hard to convey in our interviews. You are of course correct that many libraries have large numbers of VHS tapes in their collections. The difference with our collecting, and what we are confident makes our acquisition strategy unique, is that we are actively collecting VHS as a historical medium: we are collecting pre-recorded videotapes as a technological and cultural phenomenon. Every other collection we are aware of has bought VHS and other video formats (as opposed to film) in order to secure copies of particular titles. As mass deaccessioning in recent years has made clear, libraries have not seen VHS as a format that is important per se, and, indeed, it has usually been seen as a liability. When VHS remains in collections, it either has to do with conservative weeding policies or the inability to acquire a given title in another format. There is no evidence that the format, as such, is appreciated. As Mr. Farrelly indicates, Arizona State has often replaced VHS copies of “titles” when newer formats come available. Some of what we’re collecting is similarly not available on DVD or Blu-ray, but our main interest is in what the tapes can tell us through their packaging and release-specific content (previews, etc). We do not believe that anyone else is acquiring for this reason, and stand by the more specific claim that we are unique in this way. All of our materials will be stored and treated as special collections material because we see the objects themselves as valuable historical artifacts.

  • Guest

    Gee, thanks for not publishing my critical comment that contained nothing objectionable. Gotta love censorship.

  • deg farrelly

    Thank you for the detailed clarification. Along with the piece in Bloomberg ttp:// this is a much clearer picture of the effort at Yale. I will look forward to journal articles and/or presentations on the effort, and research uses of the collection in the months/years to come.

    All that said…. VHS collections in academic libraries are incredibly valuable assets that are at considerable risk. They represent millions of dollars of investment in library collections. Yet despite the slow disappearance of the equipment to play them, the Library of Congress does not consider the format to be obsolete. Video is no less in danger than the acid-based paper publications which rallied libraries for preservation efforts. Perhaps even more so since the equipment to play them is vanishing.

    Foresberg and Piil’s research shows the format, by its very existence, to be deteriorating, allowing libraries to invoke Section 108 of US Copyright law to preserve this material while we can. Hats off to Howard Besseler and Foresberg (and others) for their Video at Risk (VAR) research.

    I am embarking on my own Section 108 efforts to identify titles that can be digitized. I encourage other libraries to do the same.

  • Peter

    They should also look into a medium like laserdisc as well. A lot of those obscure titles are also available on those discs and usually in a much higher quality.

  • dancingqueen

    I’m looking for rare copy of Solarbabies my fave film from my childhood. It’s a cult classic of kids saving Earth from evil withholding entire water supply on Earth, releasing h2o back into atmosphere, filling empty iceans, creating clouds and rain… We need Solarbabies now…. 😉

  • DBloke

    To bad they aint local, id be up for the mammoth task of digitising them

  • Hephastion

    If I have roughly 60 VHS tapes. How can I contact Yale to see if they’re interested in any of my titles? My titles range from popular (ie: Close Encounters, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Superman) to the not-so-popular (ie: The Dark Crystal, Female Trouble, Das Boot).

    • Hephastion

      Still waiting….