Beinecke Library digitizing 2,000 ‘largely undiscovered’ videocassettes

“Sesame Street” skits play on three monitors in a basement room in Sterling Memorial Library. There are no children present. Videocassettes line shelves along one side of the room. Racks contain VCRs and other old video equipment.

Elmo, Big Bird, and friends are being digitized as part of an initiative to preserve and make accessible more than 2,000 videocassettes housed in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s collections. The “Sesame Street” tapes are from the archive of Tony Geiss, a longtime staff writer and songwriter for the classic children’s program.

“I love this material,” says Molly Wheeler, an archivist at the Beinecke and coordinator of the digitization project. “People tend to be more comfortable with manuscripts and printed books. This material and playback technology alienates them. This project will introduce our patrons to material that to this point has been misunderstood and largely undiscovered.”

Videotape has a limited shelf life.  Over the years, the physical structure of the tape degrades.

“It’s a matter of time before a lot of these tapes are not going to be playable at all,” says Frank Clifford, the library’s video digitization project manager, who performs the digitization work.

Digitization preserves the tapes’ content and will allow patrons to view the material via the Beinecke’s online digital library. The digitization process also creates a large amount of useful metadata, information about when and how a tape was created.

The project is a collaborative effort within the Yale University Library involving staff from Yale Library IT, Manuscripts & Archives, and the Beinecke. The digitization equipment was inherited from the recently completed effort to digitize the 4,400 taped interviews that comprise Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.

The Beinecke’s collection of videocassettes has grown in recent years as writers and artists who used videotape technology are beginning to pass away or sell their archives, says Wheeler.

The tapes come in a variety of formats, including VHS, U-matic, Betacam, and 8mm. One of the challenges of managing a videocassette collection is maintaining the obsolete equipment needed to play the tapes, says Clifford, who sometimes has to cannibalize machines for spare parts. The VCRs he uses have no covers because he is constantly cleaning the interior components. The cassettes’ plastic shells sometime must be replaced.

The collections with the largest number of videocassettes include the Geiss papers, poet Ira Cohen’s papers, the archive of Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, the records of The Living Theatre, and the papers of Lloyd Richards, a Tony-winning director and former dean of the Yale School of Drama. 

“Part of this process is learning what we have,” says Wheeler. “Nearly all of the tapes have never been viewed or described since arriving at the library.”

Clifford, who previously worked on the Fortunoff project, has digitized about 600 tapes since starting the project in January. Many have contained recordings of lectures, readings, and theatrical performances. 

He says he never knows what to expect. A tape might not play at all or it might contain something exotic, such as a performance piece from the archives of Henri Chopin, a French avant-garde artist and poet.

“That was some really wild stuff,” he says.


Photo via Shutterstock