Yale Library Is Putting Thousands Of Mystery VHS Tapes Online

Jul 20, 2015

Frank Clifford converts a VHS tape in his workspace in the basement of Sterling Library on the Yale campus. The Beinecke Library's VHS digitization project is using Sterling Library for its workspace.

Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is planning on putting more than 2,000 VHS tapes online by the end of 2016. And the archivists working to digitize them say even they don't know what's on them until they put them in a VCR and press "play."

Frank Clifford is the technician who's turning the old recordings into videos that, eventually, can be streamed directly from Beinecke Library's website. (If you're affiliated with Yale, you'll be able to see them all. Members of the general public will only be able to see the videos that don't violate copyrights.) Clifford said he's come across some strange videos along the way. 

But along with the random oddities, there's a chance they could find some truly illuminating history. These VHS tapes were part of the collections acquired by the Beinecke Library over two decades. Some were donated, some were purchased at auction, but all of them come from people the library's curators consider culturally significant: for example, Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky.

Molly Wheeler, the archivist who's supervising the project, said even the videos that don't seem to serve any purpose- mundane home movies or recorded TV programs- are worth saving. She said that's because, to an archivist, everything's worth saving.

Whether or not someone cares right now, this is the long game," she said. "It's our job to make it available, so that when it dawns on [people] to care, we've beat them to it. It's there."

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