Academic Media Center Collections, Past and Present by Preston Helms

Media centers, for many academic libraries, play an important role in supporting curricula, by providing education materials. These materials may be in the form of video or audio in various formats. Collections in media centers today often incorporate many various new technologies, from streaming video to 3D printing. In contrast, many collections still retain much older technologies, such as vinyl records, videocassettes or even film strips.

Of course, the relevance of media centers goes well beyond their direct use in curricula. Media centers can be a vital source of non-print culture, providing forms of information that cannot be imitated in print. They are often the sole place a student can turn to to find old classic films, hard-to-find music recordings, and other valuable cultural artifacts.

This post will consider some of the media and services being included in academic media centers, and the way these things build upon what has been done in media centers historically.


Media centers in academic libraries have existed in various forms for more than a century. They arose in the early 1900s as collections of photographs and pictures. The impetus for founding these centers was often instructional support.

The greatest growth of media centers happened from the 1960s through the 1990s. (Widzinski) Though there were media centers existing as distinct units in libraries much earlier, the introduction of 16mm film was an advancement that fueled the growth of many centers in their early years. The newfound ability to house films coincided with the early days of film studies as an academic discipline. Furthermore, this was in the 1960s which was itself a significant time for public investment in higher education. In the 1980s, the introduction of VHS tapes was another key development that contributed to the growth of media centers.

In the late 1920s, sound recordings first began appearing in academic libraries’ collections. These, like images and video recordings, often were put in special collections or mixed in with general collections, but eventually came to be housed in media centers  that were explicitly their own unit. Often, throughout the history of media centers, an major step in embracing new formats of recording has been instructing students how to use them. Also important has been understanding the disadvantages of new formats. When Blu-ray DVDs were released, they showed great advantages in their storage capacity, but they are very slow compared to other video formats. For instructional purposes, they can be relatively time consuming to use in a classroom for setting up and playing a short video clip.

Another issue is that when formats become obsolete, librarians have to set priorities about what content to keep, and what gets deprioritized. When new formats are invented, there is never a guarantee that they will offer the same content that has been offered on older formats. We must be conscientious to make sure that the most important content remains accessible no matter the format. Many academic media centers still contain resources that are considered by some to be obsolete, such as film strips and audio cassettes. Such decisions have been made to keep these because there is valuable content in these media that simply has not been replicated in other formats; for example educational film strips and books on audio cassette.

Preserving works is a unique challenge in non-print media. In the article Step Away from the Machine: A Look at Our Collective Past, Lori Widzinski writes, “Digital archives, institutional and discipline-specific repositories are becoming commonplace not only for scholarly works traditionally in print format, but for audio and video works as well, particularly in light of the need that responsibility be assumed for archiving and preserving the varied content held in different media formats.”

Collection Development and New Formats

Collection development in academic media centers can be a great challenge, since usually it is essentially a balancing of several smaller collections. There are different formats for audio collections, and likewise for video collections. Whenever a new format comes along, it often presents its own challenges. Not every format can be successfully integrating into collections.

One common component of media center collections is feature films. Feature film collections, in various formats, have been popular in academic libraries since the 1960s when film studies emerged as a recognized discipline. For those inside the discipline these movies are essential material for studying. But they have proved to be very important for those outside the discipline as well. Films give us visual information about the culture the film is from, expressing stories and emotions in a way that text cannot. DVDs can be important primary sources.

Rachel King, in her article House of Cards: The Academic Library Media Center in the Era of Streaming Video raises some important questions about the future of feature films in libraries’ collections. She argues that the commercial trend toward streaming video is not likely to benefit libraries. This is partly because corporations that sell streaming video are not offering anywhere near the diversity and range of titles that are available on other formats such as DVD. And it is partly because streaming video titles are almost always only available to be rented, not owned.

King says on page 292, “The library media center is going to be put under enormous pressure in coming years. Given the importance of media in the classroom, however, it must continue to provide a wide variety of videos in spite of the challenges of new formats and technologies; students and faculty have become accustomed to finding Hollywood and foreign feature films alongside educational videos and documentaries.”

With libraries and their media centers facing lower budgets these days, the decisions that prevail in collection development are often the decisions that offer the most flexibility in the short term. Regarding this, King writes, “This mindset favors the rental of information rather than its purchase. As universities introduce new programs to entice students and raise enrollment, they may prefer both faculty and library resources than do not require any long-term obligations.” (p. 293) Librarians can challenge these decisions, although we may have less influence than we do when it comes to print collections.

In spite of the tension that arises from this new format, some academic libraries are incorporating streaming video into their collections. Instructors and librarians have in some cases found it convenient to provide streaming of select titles, such as those required to be viewed for a course, as a service done within the library. This typically lessens the demand on their collection of DVDs or videocassettes. However, because there is significantly less diversity available commercially on streaming video than on DVD, it is questionable whether this kind of solution will become common.

One very interesting and practical method that is being used by UCLA’s media center is to copy certain titles from their own DVD collection, and make them available for streaming at the media center. This way of offering streaming video resulted in a lawsuit being brought against UCLA by the Association for Information Media and Equipment. The 2012 court decision ruled that UCLA’s copying and streaming of the digital videos was legitimate. (King, p. 300)

An Example: Odum Library Media Center

Valdosta State University’s Odum Library Media Center ( is an example of a success in maintaining a wide variety of resources and media-related services. Among the audiovisual resources they maintain are videocassettes, DVDs, streaming videos, vinyl records, audio tapes, and audio CDs. The way VSU handles streaming video is by a strict policy that specifies the video being offered must be for use in a specific class, and it is made available only for the time for fulfilling its instructional purpose.

One of the keys to Odum Library Media Center’s is that they have built up a range of services related to audiovisual media, to complement the resources they maintain. Among these services are media transfer and duplication, scanning, and 3D printing. The center also allows the use of software programs for audio editing, digital imaging, and video editing. These services are especially valuable given that these programs are usually best learned by hands-on experience.

Integrating hands-on experience and instruction into media centers has been a way that many libraries have kept media centers alive. There will likely be challenges to the continued success of media centers, just as there have been in the past. As new media formats are invented, librarians will have to question whether and how they should be including in the existing centers. To see that media centers have thrived and expanded over the years is encouraging. Media centers have proved themselves to be a trusted and valuable resource for higher education, and with effort we will continue to keep them running smoothly and in harmony with the other units of academic libraries.


King, R. (2014). House of Cards: The Academic Library Media Center in the Era of Streaming Video. Serials Librarian, 67(3), 289-306. doi:10.1080/0361526X.2014

“Media Center.” Media Center – Valdosta State University. Valdosta Sate University, 2015. Web. 30 July 2015.

Widzinski, L. (2010). “Step away from the machine”: A Look at Our Collective Past. Library Trends, 58(3), 358-377. doi:10.1353/lib.0.0092


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