Langara Library’s VHS Project: The Good, the Bad, and the Outreach

In library collections, VHS tapes pose a dual challenge as a format that is both rapidly degrading and becoming obsolete. In the spring of 2017, the Langara College Library began a large-scale, long-term project to deaccession VHS tapes in the Media Collection. Reflecting on this experience, this article strives to provide some successful strategies for supporting users through large-scale collection changes, and to advocate balancing best practices with the realities of user needs. The key to achieving this balance is effective outreach.

As of September 2018, Langara’s Educational Technology department would longer support the repair of VHS equipment on campus, including VHS players in classrooms and the equipment needed to transfer VHS tapes to DVD or streaming formats. DVD players would replace classroom VHS players where possible. The Langara Library saw this as an opportunity to ensure the college was providing a more up-to-date and accessible media collection. The Library made a commitment to all academic departments to replace VHS tapes that were still in use by transferring tapes to DVD in-house (where permissible) or by purchasing new formats.

The Library media collection is now in the final stages of this project, with approximately 20 titles left to order and catalogue. Overall, the project was a success in terms of creating a more current and relevant collection, and preserving access to high usage titles in new formats. While digitization and deaccessioning falls under the purview collection development, the successful completion of this project relied on effective outreach in order to ensure the library met user needs, particularly those of instructors at the college.

At the same time, however, library staff involved in the project underestimated the time and effort required for the outreach needed to solicit participation and ensure a smooth transition. Whether from newspapers, blogs, or academic journals, articles about library digitization projects or VHS collection modernization tend to focus on best practices from a collections perspective: format, budget, preservation, technical considerations, and/or copyright permissions. When the topic of outreach arises, it is in the context of promoting a newly digitized collection once the project is complete. There is little information available about best practices for preparing users for big changes in policies, format and access, nor for supporting them through these changes. Undoubtedly, the material concerns of the collection are of foremost importance in such a project, but libraries must meet diverse user needs at the same time.

Libraries often consider user needs at the outset of digitization projects in a mass of usage statistics, rather than an examination of individual preferences. For staff working on Langara’s VHS project it was difficult to know what amount of consultation with users was reasonable and manageable. User expectations inform digitization projects, and the underlying assumption for media librarians is that modern is better; that all items in a library collection ought to be available in a modern format. This is not necessarily a given for users, and it fails to acknowledge that, depending on the community in question, some users may prefer older formats and feel uncomfortable with new technology. Digitization is touted as a means of improving access and increasing usage in a collection, despite technology being a barrier to access for some users. Overall, libraries seem to consider user needs and outreach post-digitization, almost separate from the pre-digitized collection, with a focus on what is new and exciting rather than reassurance of what can be familiar and consistent.

In large part, the Langara community met the end of VHS service announcement with apprehension, a lack of enthusiasm, and understandable concern about the preservation of useful titles and future ease of access. Staff knew clear and frequent communication with users was important to ensure a smooth transition away from VHS, emphasizing the benefits of an updated and more accessible Media Collection. Guidelines were set for replacement (over a given number of uses) and for weeding (below a certain number). For the majority of items, which fell in the grey area between, subject librarians and the media librarian contacted instructors for their input. Over a period of 18 months, the media librarian reached out to instructors through mass emails from the library to departments, blog posts, and newsletters providing updates on progress. Individual instructors identified through usage stats as recent or regular users also received direct emails inquiring about specific VHS titles. All correspondence endeavoured to encourage input and offer clear sources of support, explaining how to request a replacement purchase or format transfer for continued access, and communicating firm deadlines for feedback and weeding. Beyond instructor input, the media librarian relied on liaison librarians for their subject expertise when making weeding decisions. Successful outreach strategies included:

  • soliciting feedback to ensure the library understood and met user needs
  • offering clear sources of support, such as who to contact at the library and how
  • encouraging input and participation in weeding and acquisitions decisions
  • using multiple formats and platforms for disseminating information
  • setting firm and clear deadlines

As previously noted, however, the media librarian also underestimated the amount of time, and extent of explanations, required to ensure a truly supportive transition for media collection users. It was important to strike a balance between sending reminders of deadlines, clarifying processes, and asking for participation, while avoiding badgering instructors and bombarding already packed inboxes. The Langara team tended to err on the side of caution when it came to the latter, however as the project wrapped up, it became apparent that users would have benefited from additional reminders of the deadline and clarification of what “end of support” for VHS actually meant. In Langara’s case some users assumed that “end of support” only applied to VHS tapes in the library collection, and that equipment for transferring or playing VHS tapes would still be operational on campus past the September 2018 deadline. It would have been helpful to explain “end of support” several times, in several different ways, rather than only at the beginning of the project. While nagging should be avoided, it can be useful to reiterate the project deadline in all correspondence with individual users.

Based in part on best practices available on VHS collections and digitization projects, the media librarian made the common assumption that newer is better. Unexpected feedback from instructors indicated a preference for VHS in many classes. This preference included factors such as the ability to “cue up” a film to the exact scene rather than a DVD chapter, the reduced quality of sound or picture for VHS that have been transferred to DVD, and unwanted updated or modified content in some educational titles that were still commercially available. In many cases, instructors saw VHS as more reliable for in-class viewing, particularly in comparison to streaming which ostensibly presents more technology and internet issues. Outreach strategies with room for improvement included:

  • underestimating the number of reminders and explanations users need to prepare for a significant collection change
  • assuming that the language used in project announcements and updates clearly explained the implications of the change
  • misidentifying user format preference, and failing to consider the perceived advantages of VHS over newer formats

Final tips for successful outreach in collection development, based on Langara’s experience, included:

  • considering user needs and preferences alongside prescriptive best practices: what works for one institution may not work for all
  • balancing a functional and up-to-date collection with one that will actually be used going forward
  • encouraging input only if it can be considered and acted upon
  • when seeking user input, being clear about what is and is not possible, and why

The specifics of this example, modernizing a college VHS collection while being mindful of legitimate attachments to old formats, may be irrelevant to other libraries. On the other hand, all collection strategies can benefit from the inclusion of effective outreach to better meet and understand user needs. Libraries often include outreach in collections plans in terms of promotion; however, collections will be more useful when made visible through promotion and accessible through ongoing conversation about what is working and what has room for improvement – from both a library and a user perspective.

Amelia Clarkson is the Media Collection and Student Outreach Librarian at Langara College. Prior to working on Langara’s VHS project she worked at CBC/Radio-Canada, digitizing their music collection with a team of Media Librarians.