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How to Get to 50 Years of ‘Sesame Street’

BOSTON—Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and the rest of the Muppets have lived on “Sesame Street” for the past 50 years, teaching children—and even some adults—valuable lessons on things like spelling, math and social and cultural issues. However, unlike the memorable title song asks, you can’t actually get to Sesame Street. But if you head to Boston or Washington, D.C., you can find these classic episodes readily available.

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit education workshop behind “Sesame Street,” has donated nearly 4,500 digital copies of episodes from its run, from its premiere in 1969 to its most recent episodes, to the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the WGBH Educational Foundation.

Though the episodes have already been digitized, the archiving of these episodes by the AAPB so that they can be around for generations to come is a diligent process.

According to Rachel Curtis, the digital project specialist at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus in Culpeper, Va., and project coordinator for the AAPB, after Sesame Workshop digitizes the episodes in-house, they send them to her via hard drives in batches covering 10 seasons from the show each. The files from the most recent seasons are in HD, with earlier episodes in SD.

Curtis takes the original files and creates a lower resolution access file so they can be sent to WGBH. The Library of Congress uses its own Packard Campus Workflow Application to convert the files to MP4s with an H.264 codec. The SD episodes come out to a bitrate of about 711 kbps, while the HD episodes are 1.5 mbps. The process of creating an access file, per Curtis, takes about 15 minutes. Those files are then transferred to WGBH via FTP.

“The first batch we received I’m just about finished with my testing and making sure all my scripts are working,” says Curtis. “... [O]nce all the kinks are worked out, it should move pretty quickly.”

In addition, the original files from Sesame Workshop are ingested into the Library of Congress’ own archive so they are available there in perpetuity.

When the files arrive at WGBH that’s when Casey Davis Kaufman, associate director of the WGBH media library and project manager for the AAPB, takes over. Her first task is to ingest the metadata, which she says can take from a few hours to a couple of days depending on how it complies with WGBH’s data model. The files are ingested through a Hyrax Avalon archival management system (AMS) that supports public broadcasting metadata standards.

To be able to find the episodes in WGBH’s system, an API pulls the metadata through the station’s platform so that it is searchable by keyword or series title.

“Once we get the first batch delivered from Rachel, we will go ahead and ingest that batch and make it available on site,” says Kaufman. “We’re thinking within the next six to eight weeks the first batch will be available for anyone who visits the Library or WGBH.”

The “Sesame Street” episodes—which include classic moments like “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” “Rubber Duckie, You’re the One,” “Near/Far,” and Cookie Monster’s Monsterpiece Theater—will join more than 100,000 digitized items that the AAPB has amassed since 2013. Among those is footage from the Senate Watergate hearings, more than 8,000 episodes of “PBS NewsHour” and raw interviews from numerous documentaries on topics that range from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement. There is also archived materials from PBS’s predecessor, National Educational Television.

About 45,000 items from the archive are available to anyone throughout the country via AAPB’s online reading room. Though at this time, the “Sesame Street” collection will only be available by visiting the Library of Congress and by appointment at WGBH.

Here's a highlight reel of classic "Sesame Street" episodes that will be archived during this process:

Photos courtesy of Sesame Workshop