Yale Is Building an Incredible Collection of VHS Tapes

The university has acquired 2,700 of the obsolete objects, calling them “the cultural id of an era”

At the Yale University library, you'll find a collection of Egyptian papyri and a set of Babylonian clay tablets that date back to 1750 B.C. To those rarities, the school is now adding a new breed of rare valuables: Video Home System tapes, or VHS tapes. Last week the university acquired 2,700 movies on VHS, making it the first institution in the country to treat videotapes as cultural artifacts.

The collection is dominated by horror and so-called exploitation films from the late 1970s and 1980s, which David Gary, the Yale librarian leading the project, calls “the kind of material that lets you get at the cultural id of an era.”

At a time when people watch movies on their cell phones, it may seem strange to stockpile campy cinema in a format that's already obsolete but not quite old enough to be antique.

The point of the project, though, is not precisely to save the movies themselves, though many of the offerings in Yale's collection are indeed only available on VHS. Rather, it's an effort to mummify the format’s physical assets. The garish cover art on the front, blurbs on the flip side, and analog magnetic tape inside are all working parts of what Gary calls “the materiality of VHS.”

“People will want to study the labels that were put on tapes, or the tape stock, or the plastic case,” says Gary, who specializes in American history. “All that stuff tells a story about how it was produced and where it came from that future scholars will want to grapple with in some fashion.”

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The flashy covers on tapes from this period weren't just a product of an over-the-top ’80s aesthetic. Distributors were operating in a market that became absurdly competitive after Sony and JVC produced the first consumer videocassette recorders in the mid-1970s. The difference between a winner and a dud could have been whether a movie caught the eye of a pimply teenager in a video store aisle, so it made sense to go gaudy. “The cover art, and the copy on the boxes itself, were the things that were selling these movies to young kids,” says Aaron Pratt, a Ph.D. student who's helping Gary develop the archive.

A generation of teens taking their pick from rows of slasher flicks is a moment in American history worth enshrining, says Pratt. Getting the perfect horror film from the video store directly affected “the ability for me to have a good sleepover party when I was 8 years old," says Pratt, who has amassed his own personal stock of VHS classics.

Gary and Pratt began sourcing the collection late last year, by scouring Facebook pages frequented by VHS enthusiasts. They eventually made contact with Joe Pesch, a collector based outside of Dayton, Ohio, who owned the tapes they would end up buying.

Purchasing the tapes individually would have been too expensive—they can sell for hundreds of dollars apiece on EBay—so they negotiated with Pesch to buy in bulk. After traveling to a suburb of Dayton in December to verify the quality of the pieces, the librarian and graduate student closed the deal with the collector.

To convince Pesch to part with his personal supply, Gary says he appealed to his appreciation of horror on VHS as a relic. “‘Nostalgia is the last stage before it becomes an academic topic of study,’” Gary says he told Pesch. “‘Let’s make sure that there’s a place that’s preserving these tapes for the long term.’”

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