Reading Response – “Digital Formats: Factors for Sustainability, Functionality, and Quality” by Caroline Arms and Carl Fleischhauer

Arms and Fleischhauer’s 2004 article, “Digital Formats: Factors for Sustainability, Functionality, and Quality,” goes hand in hand with a website created by the Library of Congress that set out tools geared towards preserving digital media. The article acts as a summary and explanation of what their website’s goal is, as well as providing examples and brief guidelines for those who are interested in preserving digital records. The goal of this blog post is to provide an overview of the article and help readers who might not be super experienced in this field to walk away with a better understanding of what these factors are and how they can be applied. Each bolded title corresponds to a section of the article.

Relationships and Types for Formats

This section got weighed down by technical terms that some readers, including myself, were not fully aware of. The overall argument is that custodians of digital content need to be aware that formats have “versions, subtypes, and dependencies on other formats.” Arms and Fleishhauer make a point to say that PDF and TIFF are not adequate descriptions for preservation purposes. Instead, when creating a means of preserving digital content, people need to create categories and subcategories that take into consideration the lifespan of a file, different variations, and more.

Some Observations

The authors identity “three states in a publishing or distribution stream”:

  1. Initial – while the author is creating it
  2. Middle – while the publisher manages and archives it
  3. End – what is presented or sold to an end-user.

The key take away is that middle state formats are expected to be the preferred formats for those seeking to preserve digital content. Surprisingly, middle state formats have the highest quality which makes them preferable then other formats. The authors do not provide an in-depth explanation as to why this state is so much better than the other.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Formats

The densest piece of this article, this section finally brings readers to sustainability factors and quality and functionality factors.

Arms and Fleischhauer argue that there are seven sustainability factors: disclosure, adoption, transparency, self-documentation, external dependencies, impact of patents, and technical protection mechanisms. Together, these factors take into consideration the format of the digital content, where it is stored, the institutions it is linked to, and how the public can access the material.

While discussing quality and functionality factors, Arms and Fleischhauer use still images as a case study to explore how individuals and institutions might go about creating and thinking about their own factors. The authors explain that their preservation includes four content categories: still images, sound, textual materials, and video. They provide an in-depth look into the factors they consider for still images, but do not discuss the other categories again.

This article is clearly geared towards helping those who are already well versed in preservation techniques, but there are useful notes for a wider audience as well. It would be interesting to compare this article to preservation techniques that are being used today and see what has been successful, as well as what has changed.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Looking at the seven sustainability factors, does their seem to be any missing categories?
  2. How would you define sustainability factors and quality and functionality factors to an everyday person?
  3. Did any of you try to access the website? What did you find?
  4. Do you agree that middle state formats are the best for preservation? Why or why not?

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