Karen Cariani’s background is very different than most of her colleagues in the NDSA Infrastructure working group, and that difference helps stretch both the group and her beyond their comfort zones, to everyone’s benefit.
Cariani, director of Boston’s WGBH Media Library and Archives, has worked at WGBH since 1984 where she manages and archives television shows and provides research services, rights clearances and licensing services.
As co-chair of the NDSA Infrastructure working group, she helps further the progress of the 30-odd member group as it investigates tools, practices and systems for digital preservation.
One of their early projects after the group was formed was to conduct a survey among NDSA members to see how everyone preserved their digital collections. “It was really quite interesting to see the breadth of solutions that people had,” said Cariani. “Everyone is working in their own little silos. We asked them, ‘What kinds of files are you storing?’ ‘How much storage do you anticipate needing?’ ‘What kinds of systems are you using?’ ‘Do you anticipate having to migrate your technology in the near future?’ ‘Have you considered using the cloud for your storage?’ Things like that.” Cariani said that the group may publish a paper based on their results. It would contain some best practices and guidelines but not formal recommendations. The working group intends to show from their survey results what some institutions do and what works for them.
The knowledge and expertise she’s picked up from the NDSA working group have affected her work at WGBH and made her aware of the uniqueness of television archives among her NDSA peers. “(WGBH is) at the forefront of trying to deal with issues around digital preservation for media,” said Cariani. “And there are complicated issues, a little more difficult to deal with than just documents or data sets because they’re time-based media. At NDSA there are not very many people thinking about [storing video] except us. I don’t think anybody wanted to quite tackle the idea that media files are really big data sets, in and of themselves. The files are big. And we have a challenge to deal with that.”
As television programs are increasingly shot digitally, the preservation urgency is growing. Cariani said, “Shows need to organize their materials in terms of how they name and organize their files. We’ve been giving them templates and guidelines up front to help keep track of all that. So when it comes to the end, it’s much better organized and ready to ingest into a digital system.
“Frontline is a good example of the challenges. They’ve been shooting digital files now for over a year. They, like most producers, like to use whatever camera equipment they want, particularly for things like the Arab spring. They’re going to use whatever they can grab and get out there and shoot.
“So the files coming in are in all different kinds of formats. And there’s no way we can regulate it and say, ‘Only shoot on this file format because that’s the only thing we can archive.’ We’re having to manage all these different file formats coming into our system and figuring out how we can keep those, how we can preserve them economically and then how in the near future we’re going to migrate them to a new technology.
“We have managed to get our productions to organize their files in a folder/subfolder tree structure and we’ve given them guidelines on how to name them, like no funny characters in the titles and to use a standard naming convention. They’re beginning to realize that if they don’t do that they’re never going to find their file again.”
Cariani said that she’s had a few revelations from her work with NDSA. She said, “It was interesting that people are going to have to migrate their technology every three to five years. And that people are keeping three copies; the standard used to be that people kept two copies and one was offsite.
“The third thing that struck me had to do with doing checksums on our data tapes. Somebody said, ‘Every time you pull that tape off the shelf and run it through a machine you run the risk of losing bits.’ And it struck me that it’s like a videotape with video oxide flaking, every time you run it through a machine you’re losing images. And do you really want to do that just to make sure the content is still there?”
She said that her NDSA work has also made her aware of how WGBH tends to focus on access, especially since part of their mission is to make programs accessible via broadcast, DVDs and over the internet. “We’ve always had two separate systems: one for access and one for preservation,” said Cariani. “Now we’re trying to work on a system that brings the two things together so that it’s both in one.”
Cariani is concerned that smaller institutions will be at a disadvantage for preserving their digital collections. “The smaller cultural institutions also have materials that need to be preserved, but they aren’t part of the conversation.” she said. “Community cable stations are capturing local history every day. It’s the one thing that no one’s really addressing because it’s a small piece of their collection. But as time is moving on and shooting media and collecting it is becoming easier and easier and cheaper, more and more of these cultural institutions are going to have big media collections and they’re not going to know what to do with it. If you can build a community of collaboration among the smaller institutions and the larger ones, everyone would win.”