Interview with Dr. David Gary on Yale University's Collection of VHS Cassettes

Written by 112 Video on 09/22/15
Early last year, the story of Yale University's addition of VHS cassettes to the university's archive started making the rounds on the internet. Being a VHS collector myself and studying archives, I contacted the librarian in charge to learn more about the project. For those of us who take video collecting seriously, this is an important first step towards establishing video cassettes as an incredibly important media format that has greatly impacted humanity.
Dr. David Gary is the Kaplanoff Librarian for American History at Yale University Library.  He started in 2013 and has a PhD in American History from CUNY-Graduate Center and an MLS from CUNY-Queens College.
Note: This interview was conducted in May of 2015, and since then, I had believed it was already been published to the site. But as it turns out, it was not done so correctly, thus, not made visible. Clearly, I spend more time on the data aspects of the site rather than the article pages! Enjoy folks!
What began your interest in video cassettes?

My interest in tapes started when I began attending Aaron Pratt’s weekly movie night in New Haven back in 2013.  I watched a lot of VHS when I was a kid, but not much horror or exploitation, and Aaron’s movie night opened up a world to me that was simply amazing.  I met Aaron through our mutual interest in the history of the book and when I started attending his movie night we began to discuss the links between the study of bibliography, which focuses on describing the physical characteristics of the book, and video tapes.  The boxes, labels, blurbs, and tape stock hold a lot of potential value for researchers.  In general, we discussed the academic value of VHS, and this led us to form a partnership to bring a horror and exploitation collection to Yale University Library.  

How was Yale University convinced to include video cassettes in their archives?
There wasn’t much push back when I brought up the idea, but there were a lot of questions.  Where would they be stored?  Where will they be played?  Could cataloging handle the arrival of a large shipment (especially since the department is preparing for a move in late 2015)?  What are the preservation issues? I had over a dozen meetings and wrote hundreds of emails to answer these questions and deal with the concerns of my colleagues.  The biggest concern, and rightfully so, was long term preservation of the collection, which will be costly.  
Is there a particular goal the library would like to achieve in regards to the video cassettes?
There are a number of short, medium, and long term goals.  In the short term, we need to get the tapes cataloged.  We purchased over 2,700 tapes from Joe Pesch of Dayton, Ohio, but we made purchases from about a half-dozen other collectors since Joe’s collection arrived in February 2015 and we now have around 3,000 tapes.  Only 30 have been cataloged so far, and it will take time.  All tapes will eventually be searchable in Yale’s online catalog, Orbis, and will being tagged with “VHS Home Video Collection.”  Each library record will also mention who sold the tape to Yale.  The cataloging department has graciously agreed to do detailed records for each tape and will focus on getting the proper distributor and distribution date included.  New VCRs will be purchased this summer so the collection can be viewed in Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives department (located in the central library on campus, Sterling Memorial Library).  I also began buying print materials — mostly fan ‘zines and video periodicals — to help researchers use the collection.  That purchasing will continue next fiscal year.  In the medium term we are hoping to host an academic conference on the culture and history of video at Yale University Library toward the end of the spring 2016 semester.  Nothing is firm yet, but conversations have started and I’ll be sure to let everyone know when it becomes a reality.  Also, the hope is to do a movie night next fall for undergraduates to teach them about VHS and horror.  In the long term the library wants people to use the collection and publish widely on what they find.  In addition, I hope graduate students will incorporate evidence from this collection in their dissertations and that undergraduates will write many senior theses using these materials.  Preservation is also a long term goal, and one that is very expensive.  There is no large pool of funding to digitize these tapes, so the work will have to be done piecemeal over time.  I would love to find funding to move that forward, and to fund a fellowship to bring outside researchers to Yale to work with the collection.  
Are there any particular genres the archive will focus on?
We are focusing on horror and exploitation movies distributed on VHS from roughly 1978-1985 with boxes that are in good condition.  I’m particularly interested in getting movies that cannot be found on any other format except VHS, although that is by no means a limitation to the collection focus.  
How are the video cassettes being acquired by the library?
I have made all purchases through private VHS collectors.  Aaron has deep connections in the VHS community and has done a lot of leg work to get me in touch with people and finalize deals.  Joe Pesch’s collection came here because of a public message that Aaron sent out on the Facebook group VHS MISFITS.  I have purchased a few tapes from new distributors like VCV and Cult Movie Mania, but not too many.  
How does the library plan to archive or preserve the video cassettes?
After the tapes are cataloged they will sent to our off-site storage facility, the Library Shelving Facility (LSF), in Hamden, Connecticut.  Hamden is one town north of New Haven and materials can be returned to central campus in one day.  All tapes will be stored in archival boxes in optimal temperature and humidity.  Tapes will be played in our Manuscripts and Archives department at a special station with new equipment.  A plan is being discussed on what to do in case a tape breaks in a VCR or if the VCR jams.  That should be worked out soon.  As I mentioned above, there is no large amount of funding to digitize these tapes, which is the best way to preserve their content.  The hope is to digitize a few (it’s hard to give a solid number) of the rarest tapes next year and make them available at a station in Manuscripts and Archives.  Nothing would be available publicly online due to copyright concerns.  I must stress that no plans are in place for any digitization at the moment.  If large numbers of people want to use the collection, I imagine the digitization issue will be discussed further.  The collection is considered archival, but its use will clearly not be up to the highest archival standards, which would mean digitizing the tapes for typical use and putting the originals in storage.  This will not keep it from being used if a patron wants to view something.  If the tape breaks or becomes damaged, we will do our best to replace it if possible.
What is the current number of cassettes in the collection?
Around 3,000.  Future buying will be limited to filling gaps.  Print materials will continue to be purchased.  
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I’d like to stress how excited I am to promote this collection and to help people to use it once it is processed.  The collectors who have sold materials to Yale University Library have been very patient with the requirements of institutional buying, which I know must have seemed cumbersome.  I’d also like to thank Aaron and Joe Pesch for their help.  It would have been nearly impossible for me to make this purchase without Aaron’s help, and he deserves a huge amount of credit.  Joe was also great — he had lists ready to go and was extremely flexible with us while we worked out the details of the purchase.  He really came through in a big way.  I also look forward to meeting people involved with VHS and to continue to learn more. 
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neonnights's picture
neonnights 2 years 5 months ago

Great article. It's about time someone on a higher academic plateau recognizes the historical value of the VHS cassette tape. Can you imagine 30 years from now someone going into Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives department and watching a copy of a rare euro-sleaze or blaxploitation VHS movie? Just simply awesome.

Slasher Index's picture
Slasher Index 2 years 5 months ago


Jesse L. Coffey's picture
Jesse L. Coffey 1 year 1 month ago

I wonder if this means Melissa Rivers will see her mother's RABBIT TEST at Yale. Remember that one? Billy Crystal made his film debut in it as the world's first pregnant man.