Last month, Yale University hosted “Terror on Tape: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the History of Horror on Video.” Cheap slasher flicks from a bygone era may seem a bit lowbrow for the Ivy League, but David Gary, Yale’s Kaplanoff Librarian for American History, writing for the Atlantic last summer, made a compelling case for the university’s collection of 3,000 VHS horror movies from the 1970s and 1980s.
The VCR, he explains in his article “Saving the Scream Queens,” “tapped into a popular desire to consume culture at will,” and camcorder technology democratized moviemaking, enabling amateurs to produce direct to VHS movies that, during the Eighties, shared shelf space in rental stores with Hollywood blockbusters. “Like the steam presses that produced the dime novels and yellow journalism of the late-19th century, videotape allowed a popular culture to emerge.” Yet, “it’s been estimated that about 40 to 45 percent of [all] content distributed on VHS never made its way into any subsequent digital format.”
And today, Gary tells LJ, VHS “is a medium that is falling apart. It is degrading as we speak…. We’re forgetting one of the most important technologies between the history of television and the Internet—analog videotape. We’re just dismissing it because it’s difficult and expensive to manage, but that doesn’t make it any less important.”
Consumer-grade VHS and DVD combo players are still commercially available, simplifying the process of migrating low-quality copies of rare, unique, and noncopyrighted works such as home movies to other formats. But, as noted in the 2012 New York University–led “Video at Risk” project’s guidelines on Section 108 of U.S. copyright law (more on that later) professional-grade VHS players are no longer being manufactured. This makes it difficult to access equipment that can produce preservation-quality copies. The report adds that “given their demonstrable limited lifespan, magnetic tape formats like VHS tape can be said to be ‘deteriorating’ from the moment they are made.”
For a VHS tape’s viewable life span, “the number that gets tossed around a lot is 30 years,” Gary says. But these tapes may last a bit longer than that. “We have some tapes from 1978 that are still playing. So that number is probably not exactly accurate, but they do degrade.”
Whatever one’s opinion on the importance of preserving low-budget horror movies from decades ago, other projects at Yale illustrate the urgency of the VHS situation. The university’s Sterling Memorial Library, for example, recently completed the digitization and preservation of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, a collection of more than 4,400 videotaped interviews with eyewitnesses and survivors of the Holocaust. During the digitization process, parts from the library’s preservation-grade System for Automated Migration of Media Assets (SAMMA) had to be cannibalized from other machines or replicated by a 3-D printer to keep everything working.
Following that project’s completion in 2014, Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library inherited the equipment and is in the final stages of digitizing more than 2,000 videocassettes that were included with the donated works and papers of luminaries such as Nobel Prize–winning poet Joseph Brodsky, Tony Award–winning director and former dean of the Yale School of Drama Lloyd Richards, Sesame Street songwriter Tony Geiss, and poet Ira Cohen.
“This is nearly all unique material,” says Molly Wheeler, an archivist at the Beinecke Library, describing content such as news coverage of the 1985 play The Normal Heart personally curated by playwright Larry Kramer and a large collection of live performances and rehearsals by the Living Theatre, the oldest experimental theater group in the United States.
The Beinecke has an online digital library that streams some of this digitized content, but, like many special collections that include donated papers, it allows different levels of access for off-site viewing.
“In some cases you can only view these videos when you are on Yale’s campus, and in other cases it’s open to the world,” Wheeler says. “It depends on copyright or agreements that were made with the creator or the creator’s estate.”
Access and preservation
As “Video at Risk” points out, professional systems such as SAMMA are no longer commercially manufactured, and preservation-quality transfers can average about $50 per tape—varying by format, condition, and collection size—when outsourced to vendors such as MediaPreserve, NURAY Digital, Digital Revolution, or Digital Pickle.
In addition to generating high-quality digital files, these services employ archivists to monitor transfers, logging errors and flaws in each tape and generating metadata and bibliographic information about the content, explains Michelle Krasowski, administrative coordinator for the Internet Archive, who oversees its media digitization work flows. With unique collections in which the rights holder has granted permission for public distribution, offering access can necessitate a trade-off in digitization quality, Krasowski says.
For example, from 1991 through 2005, northern California peace activist and publisher John Morearty (1938–2012) hosted a weekly cable access talk show on the Peace and Justice Network of San Joaquin County, focused on regional politics, as well as arts, culture, and environmental topics that the network believed were receiving inadequate coverage in the mainstream media.
One of his executors, Sumana Harihareswara, approached the Internet Archive about digitizing Talking It Through with John Morearty: Dialogues on War and Peace and making the show available online for anyone to watch. Krasowski initially put her in touch with the California Audiovisual Preservation Project (CAVPP), which facilitates the digitization and preservation of content that documents the state’s history. But Harihareswara was able to obtain grant funding for preservation-quality transfer of only a handful of the collection’s 331 episodes.
So with the help of volunteers, Krasowski used the Internet Archive’s bank of consumer-grade VCR/DVD combo units to digitize the tapes and make the episodes available alongside other collections such as the Jim Paymar Television Archive, the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society collection, the Maritime VHS archive donated by the California Maritime Academy Library, and the AIDS Tapes documenting Bay-area media coverage of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
“With a lower quality access-grade transfer, more content can be made available to help people understand the importance of the content of different collections,” Krasowski says. “It makes an argument for more access-grade digitization work flows…that don’t require a lot of up-front investment…to be made available for people in communities that have important collections on VHS, audiocassette, or other popular media formats.”
Know your rights
For collections of commercially published works or other content for which the creator or rights holder has not granted distribution permission, Section 108 of U.S. copyright law gives libraries and archives a provision. It allows the right to reproduce up to “three copies of a published work duplicated solely for the purpose of replacement of a copy or phonorecord that is damaged, deteriorating, lost, or stolen, or if the existing format in which the work is stored has become obsolete, if the library or archives has, after a reasonable effort, determined that an unused replacement cannot be obtained at a fair price.”
It is established that VHS is a format rapidly headed toward obsolescence. As for “reasonable effort” and “fair price,” at minimum, this implies a title-by-title search, which can require a significant investment of time. And while the language would appear to allow libraries a lot of leeway, its ambiguity has led to a range of interpretations, with some publishers maintaining that rights holders should be contacted to see if replacement copies are available.
Preservationists are well aware that this is often easier said than done. Gary pointed to the case of Chester Novell Turner, one of the few black filmmakers working in the low-budget VHS horror genre in the 1980s. Unbeknownst to him, his two movies, Black Devil Doll from Hell and Tales from the Quadead Zone—one of the films screened at Yale’s recent VHS horror symposium—had become cult classics over the course of two decades. Louis Justin, owner of the Massacre Video distribution company, wanted to buy the rights to Turner’s movies and reissue them on DVD, but Turner’s whereabouts were a mystery, although his last known home was in Chicago.
As described in a 2014 Chicago Tribune feature, Justin called every Chester Turner publicly listed in the Chicago metro area, pored through online obituaries, and then made door-to-door visits to video stores on Chicago’s South Side, until he finally found someone with knowledge of Turner. Ultimately, Justin connected with Turner, bought the DVD rights to his movies, and later hosted Turner at screenings and fan conventions. It’s a cool story with a happy ending, but it is also an example of how much time and effort could be expended tracking down rights holders for unique VHS works.
“It took one person hundreds of phone calls to find this individual,” Gary says. “That’s just not feasible for libraries.”
“Reasonable effort” does not equate with such extensive detective work, argues deg farrelly, media librarian at Arizona State University (ASU).
“If that had been the intent of [Section 108 of] the copyright law, then the copyright law would have included ‘an attempt to contact the copyright holder for permission,’ ” he says. “That’s not in the law.”
Along with Christopher Lewis, media librarian at American University, Washington, DC, and Jane B. Hutchison, who recently retired from her position as associate director of instruction and research technology at William Patterson University, Wayne, NJ, farrelly has been building an online database of due diligence searches for VHS titles to help other libraries avoid duplicating efforts (section108video.com). They will be presenting their results in a panel discussion at the upcoming American Library Association conference in Orlando, FL, on Saturday, June 25.
“We have determined that a reasonable search involves the original vendor, publisher, or distributor; Amazon; and then WorldCat to determine if the video was ever released in another format—perhaps a DVD—by another publisher,” farrelly says.
Of course, when a library is planning to update a large VHS collection, there will be many titles that vendors are now offering on DVD at “a fair price,” eliminating the need to weigh the ambiguities of Section 108 and cutting the expense of format migration projects.
Arielle Lomness, collections librarian, University of British Columbia (UBC), has been working on a pilot project at the university’s Okanagan Campus that originally began as an effort to reduce the space occupied by a 7,000-title VHS collection. After two passes at weeding, about 2,500 tapes remained “that we knew we wanted to replace or reformat,” she says. The other 4,500 originals were sent to the main campus for storage and possible inclusion in a broader project that will incorporate insights gleaned from this pilot. The library then grouped the titles it planned to replace by distributor and approached vendors with requests for bulk discounts.
“A lot of companies are very willing to give discounts…. We got everything from five percent to 50 percent discounts, and the 35 percent to 50 percent range was common,” Lomness says.
Canadian copyright law provides exemptions for libraries, archives, and museums similar to Section 108, enabling these institutions to make copies of damaged or deteriorating works that are not commercially available in a newer format. (According to Lomness, views on the law vary by institution, as in the United States.) About 150 of the Okanagan Campus’s 2,500 titles fell into this category, and after consulting with UBC’s legal department, the library adopted a conservative approach to copying this content.
Attempts were made to reach the rights holders of all titles in question, all copies were converted from VHS to DVD in order to avoid the additional legal gray area involving streaming media, and in all cases involving orphan works or nonresponsive rights holders, the original VHS copy was retained and archived, in case objections are later raised about the copy.
In many cases, tracking down rights holders was a good experience, Lomness says. “It built a really good form of communication with copyright holders,” she says. “We got to hear a lot more about the projects that they were a part of. A lot of these were documentary films, or films that were one-offs for these directors.”
As for Yale’s VHS horror collection—likely the only one of its type—it will remain static after Gary leaves Yale this summer for a position as curator of printed materials for the American Philosophical Society. It is also unlikely that the collection will be digitized and preserved, given that costs are “back of the envelope” estimated at $150,000, he says. But the collection’s box art has been photographed for preservation, and the tapes remain viewable for now.
“There’s not going to be a big push to keep this going after I leave, I imagine,” Gary says. “But I think we’re pretty happy with what we have. Anybody who wanted to study the history of this period or study the medium would have no problem doing that.” Also, interest in the period and concern about preserving its artifacts has been growing, he adds.
“We’re getting to a point now where these tapes are historical objects,” Gary says. “People are beginning to study the 1980s and 1990s in a serious fashion, and the history of video is something that is emerging as a field.”