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Preserving Digital Public Television

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A couple of years ago I picked up a reissue of a 1970 record by a band called Stark Reality.

The cover of the Stark Reality CD "Now"
The Stark Reality compilation CD "Now" (Courtesy Stones Throw Records)

Their lone record is a funky jazz re-working of Hoagy Carmichael compositions for a children’s public television program: highly idiosyncratic but pleasingly unusual. Turns out that in addition to their album they composed the theme to the program “Say Brother,” a long-running program on Boston public television WGBH, and even appeared on the show.

So what does all this have to do with digital preservation? Well, we get to enjoy these materials now because public television stations like WGBH (and hundreds of others) recognized their responsibility to history and maintained substantial archives of material and invested in their long-term accessibility. If you search WGBH’s Open Vault database, for example, you will find listings for dozens of episodes of “Say Brother.” Hooray public television!

Fast forward to the present, and we see that digital technology has radically transformed the nature of television program production. The analog preservation processes honed over decades to ensure that knowledge of Stark Reality would survive for the long-term are undergoing a rapid transformation. It’s nothing less than a complete reimagining of the role of libraries and archives in the digital world.

When NDIIPP was established in 2000 it commissioned a series of reports on the state of the digital content landscape. WGBH representatives were called on to author the “Understanding the Preservation Challenge of Digital Television” report, one of several appendices to the “Preserving our Digital Heritage” NDIIPP plan (PDF).

The findings of their report were one of the inputs that lead to the establishment of the Preserving Digital Public Television Project in 2004. Public television station WNET-TV in New York, better known as Thirteen from its assigned channel number, was the lead organization in the two-phase partnership project supported by NDIIPP.

Preserving Digital Public Television bannerDuring its first phase (2004-2010), Thirteen was joined by WGBH, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and New York University to address challenges and develop solutions for the preservation of born-digital public television content. Their approach explored the feasibility of developing a preservation repository for digital public television content while building on the work of the PBCore Public Broadcastiong Metadata Dictionary Project, which has been developing descriptive information that makes historic programming both more preservable and more accessible. You can find the first phase final report here (PDF).

The project’s second phase (2010-2011) focused on Thirteen’s work to design and deploy a preservation-compliant media asset management (MAM) system for television production. A report (PDF) from this phase describes a functioning video media asset management system that supports the production of new digital programming and facilitates its preservation.

Public television archival materials
Photo courtesy Wisconsin Public Television and the American Archive Content Inventory Project.

The report states that the new system has helped WNET create improved, standardized preservation packages as a byproduct of a more efficient production process. As the MAM is used for more projects — including new production projects and the American Archive Content Inventory Project — a greater extent of born-digital content will be preserved for future audiences. This is great news, because there are hundreds of Stark Realitys making art today that will need the rarefying measure of time to fully find their audience and reach their destiny.

The Preserving Digital Public Television project is but a single important part of a wide engagement by the Library and NDIIPP with the preservation of the nation’s audio-visual content. The Library has long recognized the value of these audio-visual artifacts, many now housed at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center on the Packard Campus in Culpepper, Va,  through partnerships with much of the public television universe to share infrastructure, technical knowledge and content.

Through the continued work of the Library and NDIIPP and its trusted partners, today’s digital audio-visual materials will hopefully survive to inspire and delight future listeners and viewers.

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