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Neck Deep in Discs
Or, the Practical Pitfalls of DVD Collecting

by Glenn Erickson

As I stare at what looks like a couple of acres of poorly organized DVDs, I wonder where I went wrong. With five very large, very tall shelves packed two deep with a collection amassed over eleven years, I frequently spend twenty minutes in search of a particular disc. Ask my friends. I have at least two different editions of Frankenstein, and I can't seem to locate either of them.

This is a typical collector's problem, and not the kind that attracts sympathy ... I mean, starving people would probably enjoy watching Imelda Marcos forced to eat some of her enormous shoe collection. Hopefully other DVD collectors can learn from my bad example.

After avoiding collecting anything for so long, DVDs have finally done me in. I needed just two modest cabinets to hold my VHS collection. I only kept 'special' tapes, and most were tossed when replaced by better-looking laserdiscs. As for the laserdiscs, I accumulated only about 400, mainly because they were so expensive. DVD, of course, wiped out their value. After spending all that money I just couldn't do the smart thing and Ebay the suckers as fast as possible. That odd attitude accounts for the 300 or so lasers still boxed in the corner of the room.

The DVDs got out of hand almost immediately, like Gremlins. After they overflowed a shelf I started swiping plastic soft drink trays to stack them in. A full wall of shelving came in 2003 and has been filling up ever since. When they maxed out I had no choice but to start stacking discs two deep. Like the Los Angeles landfill, we're now in crisis mode again.

Last year I invested in a bar code reader and Bruji's excellent DVD database program DVDpedia. Now all of my 3500 discs are beautifully organized -- in my Mac. I can't find the discs themselves, but it only takes a keystroke to look up the fine details of their contents! The program is a big help, but it doesn't do anything about the insanity on the disc shelves.

Is there a cure? This topic comes up frequently on collector bulletin boards. Some collectors simply toss the DVD packaging and related inserts and file only the discs in thin paper sleeves. That destroys the item's value and defeats the purpose of collecting. Other collectors keep the cases remotely, in storage boxes. If I do that, I know I'll never put them back together again.

No, the only solution is to accept the fact that the shelves only hold about 2,000 discs, and find a way to thin the herd. My floor is littered with boxes of titles already pulled: discs I have no intention of watching and might sell someday, discs I want to keep but don't think I'll necessarily watch again. Other considerations complicate the problem. When a new special edition of a title comes out, I keep the inferior earlier release, both for comparison and because it might have some unique extra content. Heck, I can't get rid of the very first James Bond discs because some have extras that I edited. And who wants to ditch a Criterion early number, even if it's been supplanted by a better-looking version? Four separate DVD releases of RoboCop take up quite a bit of shelf space.

As for organizing the discs, short of hiring a professional librarian I have few options. Some collectors arrange their disks alphabetically, but I like to see them laid out by year, and alphabetically within individual years. This helps me remember release dates, and spreads the history of the movies out in a linear progression. Of course, filing new discs in that kind of system is a problem. Moving forty or fifty discs to insert one in the middle isn't bad, but shifting thousands is a major disaster. I'm told that I should keep the discs numbered and locate them with the DVDpedia database, but that would mean losing my preferred filing system. I also don't want to spend a week numbering thousands of sticky tags. Actually, doing anything to this collection would probably take a week.

Hopefully, this public confession will help other DVD addicts deal with their personal collecting habit. I assume there are collectors with personal hoards much larger than mine, and maybe one of them has found a magic solution. Do millionaires have "media rooms" to house their collections, like wine cellars? I have a little collector's shelf that contains discs on which I contributed extras, or a commentary, and also a shelf where Blu-rays are beginning to accumulate. The thinner keep cases do take up a bit less space.

I have avoided one or two collector traps. A friend has told me about the dreaded "shrink wrap" curse, wherein one keeps buying new discs without watching the ones already purchased. The first symptom of trouble is discovering you've inadvertently bought the same disc twice. That's advanced obsession, or evidence of American decadence, or something. I watch everything I buy and urge movie fans to buy discs for no other reason but enjoyment. Who wants to be like the guy who spends every free dollar on his vast electric guitar collection -- and never considered learning to play?

The truly smart people don't let movies clutter up their lives. They use services like Netflix and only buy discs that they really can't live without. It's also becoming obvious that downloading from cable or the Internet will grow in popularity, wiping out the need for some to collect. Technologically-minded film fans know that physical discs are ephemeral vessels for software content, and that DVDs, like laserdiscs and VHS tapes, will not accrue in value. Ancient 78 rpm shellac records can still be played on century-old refurbished Victrolas, but when my twelve-year-old laser machine ceases to function, my lasers will be useless. How many of us remember spending $125 for a fancy laser set of a film like Terminator 2?

But I don't think the "instant access" promise of future media will change my personal desire to collect. I come from a time when movies were ephemeral items that screened and then disappeared, perhaps forever. We bought soundtracks to help replay the movie experience in our heads. I remember seeing Our Man Flint at age 13 and wishing I could "keep" the experience. I dreamed that someday I could hold a whole movie in a pocketbook-sized box that could be projected on my bedroom wall. The wondrous thing is that my dream coming true hasn't changed my attitude one bit. Every new film discovery is like a miracle --

--- in the form of a disorganized mountain of video discs.

July 28, 2008

Republished by agreement with


David Martin, 8.01.08:

Hi Glenn I opted for the large black faux-leather cases that have space for the booklet if need be. If there's no booklet, then any CD/DVD album will work. Once the case is filled, I go back and alphabetize the titles, then label each case with a number.'s Movie Collector allows for a "personal" section where you can list a storage number which for me is the case number. I print out my list of movies and storage numbers from time to time so I don't have to have my computer on to find a movie. I keep the paper covers but cases are thrown out and about the only thing I store are Box Set packaging. I can always round up a black dvd case if I need to unload a disc or 2. As far as loss of value, unfortunately, I think DVD's value will continue to decline until everything is Blu-Ray, then whatever replaces Blu-Ray.... Only downside to this is that instead of 3,000 colorful DVD cases I have 28 large black cases. But they all fit in a tall Ikea simulated maple bookshelf! -- Dave

Jordan Benedict, 8.01.08:

Hi, Glenn: Just read your piece on how to keep a library of discs in some semblance of order -- or should I say disorder -- the inability of collectors to file collections properly. Call it storagephrenia. You know the symptoms -- now here's the solution....

Google CAN-AM CD/DVD storage

Unlike snapcases with spines out vertically on shelves supported by standards and brackets, which require heads cocked to one side like Forrest Gump to read the titles, the Can-Am cases come in two-drawer, three-drawer and four-drawer units. The snapcases are stored horizontally, spines up, and you look down at the titles as you read from left to right. Tabbed dividers are available from Bags Unlimited, so you can partition your collection any way you like.

Here's the neat part. The storage cases can be stacked atop one another and anchored securely. How high can you go? As high as room permits. It depends upon the size of your collection. All collections expand and contract over time. So do most of us. Some collectors are fatty fats, hyper acquisitive, like Jabba the Hut. Other collectors are more discerning, connoisseurs by intuition. Silent or sound, black-and-white or color, they know the good from the not so good.

The Can-Am cases do not come cheap, but I've yet to find a better storage system. FM radio stations--the few and far between that still play serious music and good jazz -- have double-sided aisles of Can-Am cases. Programmers use a computer program (perhaps similar to yours) and glide up and down the aisles on rolling library ladders, pulling out this CD or that for airing. What works for music works for movies. Jordan

Bill Shaffer, 8.01.08

Hi Glenn. I tried to respond to your DVD collector's nightmare article, but have forgotten my own password. Anyway, my solution to your space dilemma may sound a little barbaric. I have been trimming my case covers and inserting them into the slim cases. I know this won't work for everything. The bulky Disney and Criterion multi-disc cases are impossible for this plus there are some things you may want to leave in their original boxes. However, by doing a few per night, I've reduced the size of my DVD library enough that I can now get almost all of them into one cabinet. It used to hold 200, now it's more like 300. I don't know if there's a better way to handle this, but I bought 100 slim cases at Sam's for $25 and I'm seeing a difference. Will they be less saleable in the future? Well, aren't they already?

As far as organization goes, I seem to be filing things by company, genre or director. All of the Criterions go together (they're numbered). Then there's most of the Warner titles in those old, bulky fold-out cases. All of my Hammer collection is in one place as well as all of the James Bond, Godzilla and Sergio Leone titles. Then we go to Hitchcock, Silent Movies and a massive selection marked Miscellaneous. I like it, but I'm sure the rest of my family doesn't. Hope this helps. Good luck, Bill

Dick Dinman, 8.03.08 -- How to File DVDs (and sometimes find them):

Glenn, I found that organizing my DVD's separately by studio works very well. For example if I want to watch All About Eve I just go to my 20th Century Fox section and just look under the letter "A". The only exceptions are Film Noir and Westerns for which I have dedicated sections. So successful is my filing system that I actually can (occasionally) find the title I'm looking for. Cheers, D.D.

David Fletcher, 8.04.08:

Hi, Glenn! I have 2,500 DVDs, 1,200 CDs, and 1,000 LPs. I live in a one bedroom Manhattan apartment, so I empathize completely with the problem.

The CDs are stored in little envelopes, which are in boxes. I threw away the jewel boxes. My CDs take up only three bookshelves, and they're perfectly manageable.

The LPs take up six long bookshelves, but I love them and I'm loathe to put them into deep storage.

I have the DVDs stored on four shallow bookcases, one deep. Each shelf holds about forty, and there are 32 shelves, so this amounts to about 1,300 DVDs that are visible. Like you, I keep them in chronological order, by decade. Within the decade, they are free to move around. I like this, because when I put back a DVD, I often see another (quite randomly) that I'll want to watch.

The only movies not ordered chronologically are the "sets" like the Warners Film Noir sets, etc. All my sets are on the top shelf of the bookcases, and easy to spot.

There is one section which is alphabetized -- the musicals, which take up three shelves.

The rest of my DVDs are in boxes which I bought at the container store, cardboard boxes which fold up perfectly, all six sides including a tucked-in top (12" x 16" x 6"). These boxes were $3 each, and they're white (meant for mailing stuff), so they're labeled by #s, 1-18. The DVDs fit perfectly inside these boxes -- about 75 each. The boxes themselves stack very neatly, and they're not heavy.

Since you've already got a good database for your disks, you could just add a box number to each title in the database.

So, the big question is, what do you keep visible, and what do you put into deep storage?

You start with the repeats, older versions of movies on DVD. These can definitely go into deep storage. Then you put the big TV collections like The Dick Van Dyke Show and All in the Family into boxes. All the documentaries can go in a box. You could even have a box of DVDs with your own edited features, which you might not watch very often. I've also got lesser watched foreign films in the boxes.

It's manageable. I've got all those DVD boxes right in my apartment.

You're my favorite reviewer (now that Pauline Kael is dead), and by the way, Bob Gutowski and Haggai Elitzur and Alan Gomberg are all friends of mine, and we have a board where we talk about Sondheim and movies. You're our hero over there (a movie guy who likes Sondheim, which is really rare). My best to you, D. Fletcher

Paul, 8.04.08:

Dear Glenn, I thoroughly enjoy your column and look forward to reading it each week so as not to fall behind. On storage, I had a similar experience when I started buying DVDs and noted that individual purchases had grown into a "collection." I do have a comic book collection that I haven't added on to for many years now, so I adapted some of my organizing experiences to the problem of DVDs and came up with the following steps:

1) Realizing the discs themselves don't take up much space (it's the packaging), I bought several CD albums to hold the discs. I had to search to weed out the "soft" albums that just seem to flop open and are very unwieldy since I wanted something that looked like it belonged in a shelf and was stable. I settled on one from Caselogic that holds 96 discs inside a sturdy book that slips into an even sturdier cover case. There is even a slot on the spine for an index label. I bought several in the same color and, lined up, they look like a thicker series of encyclopedia with matching covers even.

2) I divided the "books" into four genres (Action/Drama, Comedy/Musicals, Western, and Foreign) and labeled them alphabetically by movie titles ("Comedy A-D" for instance). You have a larger collection than I do, so you could even break these down further, but not so much as to make it too hard to find (Suggestions: Action, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Independent, Musicals, Silents, War, Western, then maybe some of the same for "Foreign" if need be - "Foreign Comedy A-D", etc.).

3) Put the discs alphabetically in the book's sleeves, leaving some space for expansion later - it's easier to move a disc from one slot to another instead of entire shelf cases. The standard cases can be stored in large plastic lidded containers (also by genre in case you want to find it later) - they're much lighter now and can be stacked in a garage, attic, etc. To be fair, I did leave some discs in their original cases if they were particular favorites or when they were already packaged in slim-line collector editions (i.e. The Prisoner and Avengers TV series, The Marx Brothers movies that are contained in two boxes, The Loony Tunes Golden series, etc.). To allow you to keep your method of organizing by year, I'd use the Bruji DVD Database program for that purpose. It's easier to look up a movie alphabetically by genre instead of trying to remember a year. However if you really insist and don't want to give it up at all (a la M reminding James Bond to "just leave the Beretta here, 007") you can arrange those albums as above but by year (splitting it into only two genres for ease, I'd do it "1934 A-C" all the way to "Z", then "1934 Foreign A-C" etc.) except you'd need a lot more cases.

To sum it up, suppose you used one entire shelf "column" for the select boxed sets/most-used discs, and suppose you bought 50 CaseLogic albums (there might even be better ones nowadays) holding about 5,000 DVDs. At a width of about 4" each, you'd be using up 16 1/2 linear feet, or about two 8' shelves. No double deep shelving and an entire collection at a glance! Of course, if one says fifty albums will hold 5000 DVDs, one can also say 100 albums will hold 10,000 DVDs in only four 8' shelves... hmmm...

Hoping this helps, Paul

Kyu Hyun Kim, 8..23.08:

Dear Mr. Erickson, I read Neck Deep in Discs with a combination of great amusement, alarm and a strong pang of recognition, which literally made me want to hide my recently purchased DVDs under my desk!!

My collection is not that big: it probably went over 1,000 mark sometime early this year, which means I can still contain them in two big bookshelves (... okay, two big bookshelves and about five ant-hill piles spread around my living room and study), but I am becoming intensely aware that the volume of collection is not only quickly overtaking that of books but also making it impossible to, as you mentioned, locate just where the heck I have placed a particular DVD.

When the collection was small enough, I used to throw all of them into one large dump and re-organize them, every time with a different classification system. This was one of my strange habits that drove my wife and friends to distraction: I would actually derive considerable pleasure from, for example, arranging the DVDs by their countries of origin, publication dates, labels, color designs (moving all red-colored spines to one shelf, followed by orange and yellow, and so forth), letterings of DVD cover, whether the DVD cover accurately represents the movie's contents, (highly subjective standard, of course) or whatever loony scheme that I could come up with out of the blue. Now of course, if I were to do this it would take a whole day so I gave up on it.

I have also started the practice, around 2005, of assigning colored labels (little dots) to the DVDs that I have reviewed for online publications, a Korean webpage I frequent and my blog. This July I was stunned to find that the number of DVDs I have reviewed have reached 200. What?! How could this be? I was so disbelieving of this situation-- that I had the time, much less of the engergy, to actually write 200 plus reviews of the DVDs-- that I had to check my computer files to get a rough estimate... and of course, the result confirmed what I could plainly see, sitting in my shelves.

Conclusion: I, and I suspect I am like a lot of DVD collectors in this regard, not only obsessively collect DVDs but also obsessively WRITE about them. I really don't think watching a cable program, VHS or movies in the theater have the same kind of effect, of egging me on to SHARE my experience of having watched DVDs. Or perhaps this is just a logical outcome of a confluence of many different cultural trends coinciding with one another, one of them happening to be the advent (and singular success) of the DVD format (others being the rise of the internet, multiplexes, etc).

In any case, thank you so much for sharing your experience with DVD collection. It is both very scary and very inspiring in equal measure. ^ ^;;;

With respect and sympathy, Kyu Hyun Kim

PS: I just got a Blu-Ray player and will be watching Dark City based on your recommendation. (I didn't particularly care for it when I saw it in the theater but I am excited about checking out the director's cut in new HD format!)

Stuart Galbraith IV, 8..23.08:

Really enjoyed your article about storage problems and could relate enormously.

I was a real pack-rat for years; the only thing that kept it under control at all was when I moved to California from Michigan in 1994, then from Los Angeles to Kyoto in 2003 and I HAD to get rid of a lot of stuff. (Actually in the move to California I didn't -- somehow I even dragged a full-size Metaluna Mutant cross-country.)

However, around 2001 I decided I really didn't want to live this way, and cleared my apartment then of about a ton of useless junk: books I'd never look at again, dust-covered model kits and figures, supposedly collectible "toys" in storage, worthless VHS tapes, etc. It was a very liberating experience.

At that time I also sold about 300 DVDs -- half of my collection back then.

The funny thing is, I don't miss any of the other stuff, but then I'll be in the mood to watch, say, my DVD of The Girl Hunters, and realize that it's long gone, sold, OOP, and available only for premium prices from private dealers. Of those 300, probably 285 I'd never watch again, but over the years I've been surprised how many times I've gone back looking for something only to remember it went bye-bye in that reverse-binge.

I think we all should be allowed one vice -- and as you suggest we're really collecting movies, not DVDs, and because we want to amass a library of movies to watch, not a collection of shrink-wrapped titles for others to admire. In my case I have the added incentive/curse of living in a country where many of the titles I want aren't otherwise available, but in any event I'll bet of the roughly 2,500 DVDs, Blu-rays, and HD DVDs I've watched probably 2,450 of 'em.

Another thing: I take enormous pleasure loaning stuff out. Maybe I'll only watch that DVD of Avanti! or The Young Girl of Rochefort once every few years, they and other titles are constantly going out to friends and acquaintances. I recently loaned a friend my copy of The Up Series, and (with my okay) it's been passed around to three other people so far. Few things give me as much pleasure as sharing a film I love with someone who gets as excited about it as I do.

As for organizing, I've got mine in these DVD-deep shelves that have little one-inch railings on the front so that they won't slide out en masse if there's an earthquake. (I've also got each shelf anchored to the wall, while my plasma is literally strapped to its TV stand base.)

I separate TV from film (but that's it) and alphabetize, though I'll group sequels together sequentially, and group other things together that make sense to do so (the Harry Palmer films, Gene Autry Westerns, Shaw Bros. titles, etc.) As you say, the only problem with this method is that, even allowing for incoming stuff, about every six months I have to spend 5-6 hours shifting everything around. At least DVD collectors now have new-found appreciations of the hard work of their local librarians! -- Stuart

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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