Class Act: Preserving Your Video Legacy

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At the end of 2008, the Los Angeles Times published a story about the last distributor of new movies on VHS tape getting out of that business. Once the most popular medium for viewing and recording video at home, new VHS movies now are mostly found in dollar stores, so the distributor wasn’t making much money at it. When the story hit the blogosphere, it went from being about the end of new VHS movies to the much more sensational and alarmist, "VHS is dead!"

I call this reaction alarmist because it’s simply not true. You can still buy a brand-new VCR and fresh blank tapes. While the forward motion of progress has made DVD the predominant home video format—with Blu-ray and internet video waiting in the wings—the simple truth is that there is a heck of a lot of content out there recorded onto these lowly, chunky tapes. Yet it’s undeniable that the last distributor dropping VHS is another indicator that the format’s heyday is long over.

It’s a good time to reflect on just how much content we have on VHS tapes and other formats that may not be too far away from VHS’s fate. Most schools that have done video recording in the past 25 years used VHS. The relative low cost and simplicity of VHS VCRs and camcorders helped usher in the widespread adoption of video in education in the 1980s. Beyond offering the ability to time shift programs for use in the classroom, VHS camcorders recorded lectures, performances, class presentations, and even specialized educational programs.

Piles of these VHS tapes are stacked up on shelves, in closets, and in storage cabinets on campuses around the world. They may be poorly labeled, missing their storage cases, or even neatly cataloged. If your institution has such an archive of old VHS, when was the last time you looked to see what’s in there? When was the last time you checked if any will still play?

With the rapidly declining cost of digital memory and hard drives, we’ve all learned that it’s easy to take thousands of photos or hours of video. The downside of this ability is that it gets increasingly difficult to sort through all that raw stuff, forcing the question of how much wheat is there among all that chaff? The same conundrum faces anyone who has a collection of old videotapes to pick through.

In most cases, however, we leave those old tapes alone until we have some other need to clean up that space. But what if you learn that a student in a performance recorded on one of those old cassettes is now a big star on Broadway? Might not the value of that piece of tape, buried in storage, start to go up? Or maybe it’s a seminal lecture by a teacher who goes on to great recognition in his or her field many years later. What seems like another boring, forgotten VHS tape starts to look like a valuable historical record of intellectual progress.

This isn’t just about VHS. I could be writing about U-Matic, Betacam, or a contemporary format such as MiniDV or DVD. The time between widespread use and near obsolescence seems to be getting shorter, and that’s not the only problem. Even if you still have the hardware or software to play a format, you still face the potential for degradation. Tapes shed oxide, discs get scratched, memory cards get corrupted, and hard drives crash—never mind the unforeseen effects of simple age.

Too much recording happens with little thought about that record’s future value a year, decade, or even century away. Those working in educational media should also consider themselves preservationists and archivists. There’s little point to creating media if it’s not going to have some lasting value. Not every course lecture or class presentation requires careful archiving, but consideration of what does and does not deserve preservation must happen.

It’s never too early to examine your school’s archive of videotapes, DVDs, and hard drives to make sure you know what you have and to make plans to preserve what’s important. At the very least, copy those VHS tapes to MiniDV tape, and copy those important MiniDV tapes to another one so you have a backup copy. Even better, once you’ve made a physical backup go ahead and capture these videos to hard disk. Keep the highest-quality version you can and make a compressed version that you can use online. Then burn copies of those files to disc too.

Yes, we can still buy new VHS VCRs today, but we don’t know about next year. If you take the time now to make backups of your most important tapes and files, then you’ve just bought some of the cheapest insurance against the threat of obsolescence. In the process, you contribute to the preservation of your school’s legacy.

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