StratComm Digital Preservation Survey and Report

Introduction

I have chosen to focus my project on the digital image collection of the Strategic Communications (StratComm) department. StratComm is an in-house communications department for a not-for-profit company with offices in the Washington D.C. and Boston areas.

While the primary focus of StratComm is in communicating externally with industry and the public, the context under which they collect and preserve their image collection is more internally focused. Their primary impetus for both the curation and preservation of their digital assets is to empower StratComm’s staff, as well as the company’s employee population, to use the image collection to effectively communicate about its work program. It is especially important to StratComm that this is done in a manner consistent with the new brand guidelines that are currently being developed.

While this mission is focused on short-term communication needs, it is highly dependent upon prior curatorial and preservation groundwork being laid. For example, the ability to locate existing imagery featuring a particular research or technology requires applying descriptive metadata, a Level 3 requirement of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s (NDSA) Levels of Digital Preservation rubric (Phillips, Bailey, Goethals, and Owens, 2013, p.3). Another example would be maintaining access to files saved in obsolete or proprietary file formats. This requires ongoing monitoring of industry trends and a program of format migration to convert obsolete file types to formats that are accessible to modern tools. These are Level 3 and Level 4 activities on the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation rubric (Phillips et. al., 2013, p.3). Without these activities StratComm will at best continue to experience difficulty in searching the early digital image collection, and at worst may lose access to that collection permanently.

The following assessment is based on a series of interviews performed in October of 2018 with members of StratComm leadership and Corporate Archives.

Scope of Digital Holdings

StratComm’s image collection technically starts in the 1950’s with the founding of the company. From this time up until 1995 all images were shot on film and printed on paper. These traditional film-based images are all currently housed and preserved by the organization’s Corporate Archives department.

In 1995 StratComm (called Communications and Publications at that time) transitioned to digital imaging systems with the purchase of a Kodak DCS 465, which was a digital back designed to be mounted on a Hasselblad 500 series film camera. This purchase was followed in short order by the additional purchase of a Kodak DCS 460, which was a digital back permanently screwed onto the back of a Nikon N90s. These two cameras began StratComm’s digital image collection.

In the early days CDs were the primary storage medium for all image files. The Washington office currently holds about 800 CDs and DVDs. Boston also had a CD collection, however it was significantly smaller, and reportedly much less organized. Boston transitioned to using external hard drives in the early 2000’s and continued this practice until the introduction of the present server-based infrastructure. These hard drives were transitioned to the Corporate Archives department upon the retirement of the Boston photographer.

The Washington office’s choice of CD as a storage medium remained prevalent until about 2009 when StratComm began to take advantage of the lower prices for external hard drives. Over time the Washington photographer gradually morphed from using an external RAID array to a centralized server system available to the entire multimedia department. Since the servers are used as a platform for video editing high network bandwidth is important, making it necessary for each branch office to maintain their own local server. However, each office is capable of accessing the other’s server if necessary. Today, the combined size of the online portions of the image collection in both Washington and Boston is roughly 8TB.

The current state of StratComm’s storage system described above does not yet meet requirements for any of NDSA’s levels for Storage and Geographic Location category, however the general trend away from optical media and towards a server-based infrastructure is positive progress towards Level 1 (Phillips, 2013, p.3).

Current Content Management Practices

On an OS level, the organizational practices between locations are best characterized as partially divergent. There is little consistency apparent in the upper level folder structures on each location’s multimedia server. StratComm leadership and design staff frequently have trouble locating the correct directory to find recent photography files without the assistance of photographers. However, once the correct directory is found the folder structures are mostly similar. Projects are stored in chronologically ordered folders, each with the date and project or customer described in the folder name.

Metadata

The photographers in both locations primarily interact with the image collection through Lightroom. Lightroom is both a RAW processor as well as a file management tool. The Boston photographer tends to add metadata to image files solely through Lightroom. This includes the conveyance of the camera’s automatically captured EXIF metadata, as well as authorship, copyright, and rudimentary descriptive metadata in the form of keyword tags. The Washington photographer uses a combination of Lightroom and Adobe Bridge for applying metadata to images. Bridge functions more like a high-powered browser window, allowing the user to see previews of certain types of graphics files, as well as allowing the user to edit the embedded metadata of those files. The Washington photographer uses Lightroom to apply authorship data, camera EXIF data, and copyright data. Descriptive metadata is then applied in Bridge, including a title, description in paragraph form, as well as the application of keyword tags, which have been constructed to mirror the organization’s taxonomy of search terms. Bridge is used for this because it allows a more granular capability of applying sub keywords without necessarily applying the parent node as well.

StratComm’s current metadata practices described above qualify as the storage of standard technical and descriptive metadata; a Level 3 requirement of NDSA’s Metadata category. However, requirements for Levels 1, 2, and 4 are currently not met. These levels require an inventory of content and storage locations; storage of administrative and transformative metadata; logging of events; and storage of standard preservation metadata (Phillips, 2013, p.3).

EnterMedia DAM system

StratComm uses a digital asset management (DAM) system called EnterMedia as a means of establishing access for all company employees to search the image collection. It is important to note that the bar for inclusion in EnterMedia is that the images have at least some reuse value. This means that some images that are not related to the company’s work program, such as retirement and birthday parties, may not be included. Management did not wish to choke the system with a large amount of material of limited or no interest. As such, the images uploaded to EnterMedia do not encompass everything shot, but are a hand-selected subset that is mostly chosen by the photographers.

The retirement of MediaBeacon – the previous DAM system – occurred in conjunction with the purchase of EnterMedia in 2015, however the implementation of EnterMedia took longer than anticipated. Only in the last year has EnterMedia begun to function as initially planned. The images from Washington created during this three-year gap formed a sizable backlog that has just recently been augmented with metadata and uploaded to EnterMedia. Boston also has a backlog of images, but is still early in the process of synchronization.

Also missing from the EnterMedia database are any of the images that currently reside on the CD and DVD collection. Since StratComm’s communication needs tend to skew towards featuring the most current content possible the absence of these images from 1995 through 2009 is not as critical as the three-year gap discussed above. However, the value of these early digital images cannot be completely discounted. Communications showing the history of a particular program, or retrospectives featuring the history of the organization often use this type of material.

File Migration Efforts

The files housed in the Washington CD and DVD collection have two major vulnerabilities:

  1. The discs are rapidly decaying.
  2. The RAW files produced from the early Kodak cameras required a Photoshop plug-in whose most recent supported version was Photoshop 5.5 on Mac OS 9.

The Washington photographer has begun the process of migrating files off of the CD collection and transferring them to the Washington multimedia server. At the time I write this most material between 1995 and 2006 has been successfully migrated. Only a few more years still remain to be migrated, however the much larger tasks of identifying a solution for format migration, as well as applying metadata to the images remains a significant need. Without these steps the images will remain unavailable for either access or searchability.

The activities described above do not yet meet any requirements for NDSA’s Storage category, however the migration of files off of optical media represents progress towards achieving Level 1 (Phillips, 2013, p.3).

File Format Choices

The choices of file formats that are saved by each photographer and provided to the end-user are another point of divergence between the branch offices.

The Washington photographer retains all RAW files in their native proprietary .NEF format. Once he has edited and processed the images he wants he exports high quality JPEGs, which are then used as the master copy for any further manipulation in Photoshop or providing to the end-user. The retention of proprietary RAW formats is admittedly a vulnerability, however this choice was originally made with the expectation that RAW files would eventually be discarded after a pre-determined sunset date. In practice, this discarding of RAW files has not happened because the time necessary to locate and delete these files costs more than the additional storage needed to simply retain them. For delivery formats, JPEG saved at maximum quality in AdobeRGB was chosen because it was high enough quality for print and fast to export. JPEG also satisfied end-user requests for a format that was usable in a wider number of display platforms than TIFF. Washington used to export to TIFF many years ago when camera megapixel counts were much lower, however end-users had continual problems with not having the necessary software to open or use TIFFs. Additionally, the extreme megapixel counts of today’s cameras make TIFF significantly slower to output and manipulate, and they require more than 10 times the amount of storage space.

The Boston photographer converts all RAW files from Canon’s proprietary .CR2 format and saves them as .DNG. The Digital Negative (.DNG) format is a RAW format created by Adobe in an attempt to create a standard format for RAW camera data that will enjoy a comparatively longer period of compatibility with RAW converters. Technically it is still a proprietary format, however it is worth noting that Adobe has submitted .DNG to the International Standards Organization in an effort to establish it as an accepted standard (“Adobe seeks International recognition for DNG”, 2018). How widely the .DNG format has been adopted is unclear.

The Boston photographer provides different formats to the end-user depending on their level of graphics expertise. If the requester is a StratComm designer he provides the raw .DNG file and lets them convert to their desired format. For all other users the photographer creates automated web galleries through Lightroom that feature thumbnails with reduced but sufficient resolution for utilizing in PowerPoint, which he feels is the most common need.

The file format practices described above come close to achieving a Level 1 status on NDSA’s File Formats category (Phillips, 2013, p.3). A major point that should be examined further is the use of .DNG as a RAW format. There are no non-proprietary RAW formats in existence, so nothing is a perfect choice. Adobe’s efforts towards making .DNG open and well documented are positive traits, however further research is warranted on current adoption levels and interoperability with present RAW processing tools.

Current Backup Strategy

My initial inquiries indicate that both branch offices back up their servers on a scheduled basis. Washington’s server is backed up to a server that is collocated with the primary server using software provided by the company’s IT department. The Boston server is backed up by software obtained by the multimedia staff and, like Washington, it is also backed up to a server that is collocated with the primary server. A third copy of files for either location does not exist, nor does there appear to be any capability for performing fixity checks to guard against file corruption.

The backup strategy described above does establish a second copy of files; a requirement of NDSA’s Level 1 of the Storage and Geographic Location category. However, because this copy is collocated with the original it is vulnerable to the same threat profile as the original. As such, current practice does not yet meet Level 1 requirements. In terms of fixity, StratComm’s current absence of any ability to check data integrity at any stage of use or storage does not satisfy the requirements for any of the NDSA levels in the File Fixity and Data Integrity category (Phillips, 2013, p.3).

Information Security

StratComm has some minimal information security protections in the form of password requirements for access to the multimedia servers, however some access granted to designers has caused issues in the past. One notable incident caused the unintended deletion of an entire folder of images. This event illustrates the need for tighter control of read/write permissions; a Level 1 requirement of NDSA’s Information Security category (Phillips, 2013, p.3). 

Staff Perceptions

Due to organizational restructuring efforts undertaken in the last year most members of StratComm leadership are recent new hires. As such, their level of self-efficacy in accessing and utilizing the digital image collection is presently limited. StratComm design staff also exhibit inconsistent levels of knowledge concerning the use of EnterMedia as an image search resource. This is partly due to lack of prior knowledge in the case of recently added contract staff, but permanent staff also exhibit this lack of knowledge due to the aforementioned delayed implementation of EnterMedia. The long gap between the retirement of MediaBeacon and the implementation of EnterMedia created a workflow dynamic that required designers to seek the assistance of photography staff to personally perform image searches. It has now become reflexive to continue this practice.

Except for the photographers themselves, Corporate Archives staff currently seem to have the most accurate insight into the state of the image collection, however this knowledge of status does not translate to access. They are aware of and familiar with StratComm’s server workflow, the existence of the CD collection, and the existence of new EnterMedia DAM system, however they only enjoy access to EnterMedia. Of all the stakeholders, Corporate Archives staff know best where to go to look for images, but they also know how big the gaps are and how much of the collection is not physically under their control. This limits their ability to assist their customers with historical image searches, as evidenced by the occasional need to refer customers to StratComm photography staff for image search assistance.

It is important to note that despite StratComm leadership’s relative unfamiliarity with the full scope of the image collection, they have expressed a high degree of interest in its value as a resource and the important role it will play in communicating about the work program of the organization to an external audience. Even more critically, the image collection will play a vital role in establishing the new visual brand both internally and externally. 

Ancillary Content

StratComm leadership mentioned two types of digital content that they would be interested in collecting which they currently are not. The first is stock imagery that is purchased through corporate accounts with large stock image collections. These are downloaded from various websites on an as-needed basis. The challenge with this material is that the licensing prevents them from retaining that same file for a later use. Provided their account is paid and active, they are free to download the same file a second time for a single use, however this licensing rule precludes adding stock image content to EnterMedia.

The second type of content they are interested in collecting is their burgeoning set of iconography they are developing as part of the company-wide rebranding effort. They have not collected vector art before in a repository that made such content available to employees. They expressed a strong desire to create curated packages of these icons based on themes that mirror the company’s research areas. They wish to empower employees to effectively leverage the company’s new brand identity without necessarily requiring the assistance of StratComm. Such a self-service repository would be critical to that end.

In a similar vein, StratComm leadership expressed a great deal of interest in the creation of themed image galleries of photography specifically curated to align with these same research areas. Leadership also emphasized a desire to gain insight into usage. Version control, usage stats, and even usage permission were of particular interest.

Potential Resources for Effecting Change

As previously mentioned, StratComm’s leadership is all newly hired in the last year. As such much of the status that is outlined in this document was new information to them at the time of the interview. Since budget planning is a process that is measured in quarters and years it is not surprising then that their response on the question of potential resources to devote to preservation sounded doubtful for the provision of new budget allocations or staff time in the short-term. However, it was mentioned that if they can find ways of displaying the increased value of curatorial and preservation activities they may be able to fold some of that work into the larger corporate modernization effort that is still under way. There is also a unique opportunity for the multimedia group to explore new options for their server infrastructure as they consider the replacement of their aging Mac servers. Both of these responses leave considerable room for hope.

As a short-term strategy, StratComm leadership feel that their most effective approach for addressing preservation needs will be to look for strategic partnerships with existing departments in the company, such as Corporate Archives and IT. These organizations may be employing solutions for their own needs that could also work for StratComm.

Conclusion

I concede that many of the concerns that were outlined during the interview were notably curatorial in nature. At first glance these issues might seem out of scope in an examination of strictly preservation concerns, however I have included them above out of recognition that curatorial and preservation activities enjoy a symbiotic relationship that is not easily separable. After all, it is difficult to establish access without having preserved the material.

In the next phase of this project – the Digital Preservation Plan – I hope to address both the curatorial concerns raised here as well as the more straightforward preservation needs. 

References

Adobe seeks International recognition for DNG. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.dpreview.com/articles/8083544151/adobedng

Phillips, M., Bailey, J., Goethals, A., & Owens, T. (2013). The NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation: An Explanation and Uses. IS&T Archiving, Washington, USA. Retrieved from http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/documents/NDSA_Levels_Archiving_2013.pdf

One Reply to “StratComm Digital Preservation Survey and Report”

  1. Great write up. It is clear that you have really dug into the workflows and practices and the history of this content over time. You have also nicely mapped out the relationships between the content and the levels of digital preservation. I think your case nicely illustrates a major challenge that many large organizations face of triangulating between IT, Archives, and media production units. In that vein, it does seem like you are getting at some really significant issues and have thoughts for how to move forward. A lot of the curatorial questions you are asking are really critical in establishing preservation intent for this material. All of the stakeholders you are working with have different roles to play in the ongoing work of the organization and the more clarity is on the state of the work and it’s relative priority the more likely you are going to be able to make the case for resources and attention necessary to support the work. Very much looking forward to reading your next steps project.

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