Digital forms and definitions and resources oh my!

My attempt at a joke

Hey everybody! I hope you guys are all safe and healthy in your various quarantined spaces. In this post, I will be discussing the three articles for this week’s reading which all deal with various different aspects of digital resources. All three of the articles are rather different not only in subject matter but also in general writing style and purpose but they all contribute to the conversation on defining what certain digital resources are, how certain terminology comes to be, and how a digital resource becomes digital in the first place. So let’s dive into these articles!

Digital Formats: Factors for Sustainability, Functionality, and Quality

In this article Arms and Felischhauer discuss and evaluate various digital content formats that can be possibly used for the Library of Congress’ online collection. This article is very informative and it is filled to the brim with technical words and information that I admit I don’t completely understand, but I’ll do my best to describe.

There are a wide variety of digital formats (more than 150!) that content custodians are able to choose from. To do this they need a basic understanding of what format would be more beneficial for there uses. When analyzing digital formats sometimes there are more favorable elements in different stages of its creation. When choosing formats Arms and Fleiscchhauer write that there are two sets of factors that should be considered; sustainability and quality/functionality factors. They lay out seven sustainability factors in the article that can be used to evaluate digital formats of various categories, I have paraphrased some of the information they give in the article here:  

  1. Disclosure; how present are complete specialization and tools for validating technical integrity within the form and can it be used by those who make digital content?   
  2. Adoption; how much is the format already being used by the creators, or users of information resources?  
  3. Transparency; is the resource open to direct analysis with basic tools?  
  4. Self-documentation; does the digital format contain metadata from its creation and beginning stages?
  5. External dependencies; how much does the format depend on outside hardware and software for use?
  6. Impact of patents; how much will patents affect the use of the digital format by archival institutions?
  7. Technical protection mechanisms; how much will mechanisms such as encryption prevent preservation by a trusted source?[1]

Quality and functionality factors are more flexible than the sustainability factors because they are reliant on what kind of digital content the format is meant to represent. What is required for one digital content category can be fundamentally different from the other, which is why one set of factors cannot be used for every category. This article is very informative, and an excellent guideline for evaluating different digital factors and deciding which are best for a particular institution’s needs.

Jonathan Sterne’s Analog

This article is a lot different from the previous one, instead of focusing on digital resources this article focuses more on the terminology. The article gives a brief linguistic history of the word analog (analogue), and how it relates to the digital. Analog has had many different uses throughout history, but today the word tends to mean the opposite of digital (like the analog clock that kids are beginning to forget how to read). In this article, Sterne tells this brief history by using excerpts from the Oxford English Dictionary which illustrates the evolution of the word into the current definition. This definition is dependent and shaped by the changing ideas of what is considered digital, which is clearly shown by the changing definition throughout time as the digital becomes more prevalent. Sterne ultimately argues that the idea of the word analog as simply “not-digital” is a limiting definition that confuses more than it simplifies. The simple binary that it creates of the digital vs. non-digital limits the complexity of non-digital things and insinuates that all non-digital things are more similar then they are just because they are not digital. As the term analog becomes more entwined with the digital it leads to analog being used in a more generalizing way, as Sterne puts it “the analog expands and blurs to give definition to the digital.[2]” Sterne ends his article with a sort of call to action, to return the specificity of the analog and end the more simplistic use of the word to describe the non-digital. The simple analog vs digital binary diminishes the complexity of the non-digital, and this does not necessarily make it easier to understand the two categories better. More complexity to the definition of analog would allow more understanding when it comes to non-digital things.

Photo by Charles Turnbull, depicts members of the 24th Infantry division including Private 1st class Kenneth Shadrick(right) who was one of the first casualties of the Korean war

TAGOKORE: a biography of an Electronic Record by Jefferson Bailey

This article is about a digital record of the Korean War, called the TAGOKOR file. This file contains information about various US army personnel who were causalities of the Korean war and contains around 109,975 records with about 20 different categories of causality. This article covers the history of the life of this record beginning with its original state and then its move into a digital resource. It was originally the creation of the Adjutant Generals Office, a unit of the army that was meant to maintain personal records and develop data processing systems. These casualties were first recorded on punch cards, but in the 60s it was converted into the magnetic digital tape.

This is a punch card similar to the ones used by TAGOKOR

The TAGOKOR files where acquired by NARA in 1989 who in 1999 had TAGOKOR preservation copied and then in 2012 it was put into the Electronic records archives. The conversion process, however, had some problems in that some of the coding classification was old, or even lost to history. The conversions and various coding books needed meant the TAGOKOR files are dependent on not only digital resources but also codebooks and other older resources to interpret the file. As it gradually moved to the digital sphere, access to TAGOKOR also transformed. Originally it was available as a computer printout but after the NARA acquired it, they made it available in a variety of ways including digitally. When the World Wide Web came to be websites began to emerge with information from the TAGOKOR file, with information coming from the file itself as in the case with Whitey Reese’s website.  The file is now far more accessible and has been used by various websites along with other archival information about the Korean war. The history of the TAGOKOR file from punch cards to the internet is a well-crafted case study that shows the evolution of data collection, preservation, and access throughout the 20th century into the 21st century.

These articles are all on varied subjects and are very different however as I stated before they all have something important in common. All of these articles pertain to important terminology, resources, and evaluation systems that help to define aspects of the digital world. With this thought, I sign off, stay healthy guys and see you soon!

Don’t forget!

[1] Arms, Caroline and Carl Fleiscchhauer. “Digital Formats: Factors for Sustainability, Functionality, and Quality.”

[2] Sterne, Jonathan. “Analog” in Digital Keywords

4 Replies to “Digital forms and definitions and resources oh my!”

  1. Jamie,
    Thanks for this awesome summary! In particular, I found the Arms and Felischhauer article to be a helpful tool for future digital projects, especially as practitioners in the field of public history. Specifically, I think that these categories of sustainability and practicality ring true in our area of study, because they are so focused upon the “public” and how digital methods can translate/circulate among people and categories beyond their original purpose. I will definitely keep these points in mind when looking at my own digital project!

    Sarah F

  2. Great summary of the articles! I particularly liked in the Digital Formats article the Seven sustainability factors. I think that was a very interesting section to see what is considered in the selection of digital formats and an insight into why certain formats may be more common than others. I also found the article on TAGOKORE very interesting bot to see how record keeping has changed so drastically over the years but also to see how records’ formats have been updated to keep them accessible as technology has changed


  3. Thanks for covering so much ground in this post! Lots of good stuff to dig into.

    I’ll echo Sarah’s note, and say that that Arms and Felischhauer essay remains a fantastic resource for thinking about the sustainability of digital formats. It’s a great framework for thinking through issues around long term access to digital content.

    There are some interesting observations to draw out from the connections between the history of the TAGOKOR file, issues with the nature of analog, and with sustainability of formats too. That is, I think lots of folks wouldn’t think of those punch cards as being “digital” but they unquestionably are. You can see the individual markings that make these data. Connecting back to Elizabeth’s post about the Mechanisms book, in many ways the punch card is a great way to illustrate key parts of digital information.

    As we discuss this more, I would be curious for thoughts anyone has about how the history of the TAGOKOR does or doesn’t fit with the issues that Arms and Felischhauer discuss as sustainability factors. What needed to happen to those cards to ensure that their content remains usable?

  4. Hi Jamie! I really enjoyed reading your post, specifically your analysis of the TAGOKOR reading. I found that one to be the most interesting specifically the inextricable relationship between the history of computing and the modernization of the military throughout the 20th century. The section about punch cards and their capabilities to expedite information about the soldiers who were killed during World War II and its evolution into a magnetic tape during the Korean War. The trajectory of TAGOKOR underscores the complexities that exist when attempting to process and archive digital records for public use is something I think Bailey lays out extremely well in this article.

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