Understanding Digital Content: Media, Materiality, and Format

Jonathan Sterne, “Analog” Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture

Analog versus Analogue? From the 1980s to 1990s, these two terms gained popularity. “Analog” is defined as “smoothly varying, of a piece with the apparent seamless and inviolable veracity of space and time; like space and time admitting infinite sub-division, and by association with them connoting something authentic and natural, against the artificial, arbitrarily truncated precision of the digital.” (Sterne, 31). Sterne argues that analog indicates a certain technical process, using one quality to represent another. Additionally, analog is not everything outside of the digital processing world, because analog has to have a technocultural relationship to nature.

Etymology of analog:

– French analogue which means “a thing that has characteristics in common with another thing” which derives from Greek and Latin terms for analogy

Oxford English Dictionary (OED) reveals two distinct threads for analogue, one as a natural science thread, and the other as a technology thread. The table below highlights how OED utilized the term analogue over time.

Entries in OED from the 1950s onward begin to denote analog as something not-digital. By the 1970s, analog focuses on the contrasts between different digital technologies.  In the 1980s, analog began to blur the lines of digital and not-digital in engineering and computer science fields. How can analog refer to both things that come into contact with digital technology and things outside the realm of digital technology?

Do you agree with the idea that analog media resembles the senses more than other media? Do you agree with Sterne’s argument that analog is a dimension of life, rather than life itself?

Caroline Arms and Carl Fleischhauer, “Digital Formats: Factors of Sustainability, Functionality, and Quality,”

Arms and Fleischhauer created this to help Library of Congress staff deem which digital content should be preserved in the Library of Congress’ collections.

The goals of this study were to:

  1. Support planning and decision-making
  2. Provide an inventory of information about emerging digital formats
  3. Identify and describe formats that are promising for long-term sustainability, and develop strategies for sustaining these formats

The focus of the digital content in question includes data files and data streams.

Types of Formats

  • Formats have versions, subtypes, and dependencies on other formats. The goal is to help staff distinguish between format requirements and variants.
  • Commonly used format names are TIFF, PDF, jpg, mov, MIME
  • Formats include versions developed over time, file extensions, and variants distinguished by different encodings
  • Because there are so numerous format options, it is hard to know which subtypes will be offered to the Library of Congress
  • 3 stages of formats: initial (while the author creates the format), middle (while the publisher utilizes the format), and end (what is sold to end-user)

What should you consider when choosing formats?

  • Seven sustainability factors
    • 1. Disclosure, or the “degree to which complete specifications and tools for validating technical integrity exist”
    • 2. Adoption, or the “degree to which the format is already used by primary creators,”
    • 3. Transparency, or the “degree to which the representation is open to direct analysis with basic tools”
    • 4. Self-documentation, or metadata that relates to the early stages of the format and helps manage the later stages of the life cycle
    • 5. External dependencies, or the “degree to which a format depends on particular hardware, operating system, or software for rendering for use and the predicted complexity of dealing with those dependencies in future technical environments,”
    • 6. Impact of patents, or the “degree to which the ability of archival institutions to sustain content in a format inhibited by patents”
    • 7. Technical protection mechanisms, or “implementation of mechanisms such as encryption that prevents preservation of content by a trusted repository”
  • Quality and Functionality Factors for still images, sound, textual materials and vieo
    •  Normal rendering –> for still images and ability to zoom in and out
    • Clarity –> necessary for high image resolution
    • Color maintenance
    • Support for graphic effects and typography –> use of shadows, filters, and other effects such as font, patterns, transparency
    • Functionality beyond normal rendering –> 3D models, layers

So, what formats do Arms and Fleischhauer prefer?

Their top preference is the TIFF with no compression. Lossless JPEG2000 is also acceptable. For images in digital cameras, TIFF/EP are preferred. For graphic art, TIFF/IT or PDF/X are preferred. They admit that with changing technology, these preferences may be different in the future.

Jefferson Bailey, “TAGOKOR: Biography of an Electronic Record”

TAGOKOR is the Korean War Casualty File, 2/13/1950 – 12/31/53,, which includes the Records on Korean War Dead and Wounded Army Casualties File, 1950 – 1970, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1905 – 1981, Record Group 407, located in the National Archives at College Park in College Park, MD. The TAGOKOR file contains 109,975 records, with each record listing twenty-six discrete units of coded information.

TAGOKOR provides an excellent example for the existence of such detailed records and the preservation of the records by its custodians and users. The files are all searchable and downloadable via the National Archives and Records Administration Access to Archival Databases. TAGOKOR came from the Adjutant General’s Office (TAGO), a military unit in 1907 that housed personnel records, and established data processing systems for the United States Army. As some of these records included those dedicated to the Korean War, KOR is included in the acronym. The beginning stages of data processing for TAGOKOR included the punch-card. Many units utilized the punch card to track different types of troop information, including casualties. The punch cards were converted into seven-track magnetic tape, 556 BPI in 1964 and where copies were made. One copy lives in the USADATCOM and the other in the Army Record Center.

The TAGOKOR then utilizes ten different methods of classification. The first eighteen characters detail the casualty’s name, with the remaining sixty-seven character spaces constituting an array of classification procedures.

In 1989, TAGOKOR was transferred from the Data Processing Division of the Adjutant General’s Office to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). At the time, NARA lacked the technology to read the files, so they had to rent time on mainframe systems at government computing centers. TAGOKOR was then analyzed with the Data Interfile Transfer, Testing and Operations Utility (DITTO) to determine the labels and sample records. In 1991, the Archival Electronic Records Inspection and Control (AERIC) allowed for a more comprehensive verification of the records. In 1993, NARA launched the Archival Preservation System (APS) which allowed greater preservation of TAGOKOR. In 1999, TAGOKOR was preservation copied to maintain NARA’s 10 year policy of media migration, allowing the file to finally be “formally verified” in the AERIC system. TAGOKOR appeared on the World Wide Web in the early 2000s. In 2012, the file migrated to NARA’s Electronic Records Archive (ERA) system, allowing greater accessibility to users.

TAGOKOR represents how files evolve throughout time, especially in record preserving processes.

Trevor Owens, Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation

Chapter 1: Preservation’s Divergent Lineages

Owens presents a history of preservation by utilizing three preservation frameworks, artifactual, informational, and folkloric. Artifactual is “based on a notion of historical contiguity of a tangible physical object,” (Owens, 15). Informational is the idea that any copy with identical information is the same. Folkloric believes that as long as the key elements of the story are there, it is okay if every word or phrase is not consistent. Owens then applies the frameworks to Homer’s Iliad, archives, and butterfly gardens. The Iliad denotes physical historical spaces, has millions of copies throughout the world, and has been told slightly different ways over centuries. Archival records house preserved objects, like cuneiform tablets, and publish archival material online or in physical copies, like the Papers of Thomas Jefferson project. In editing the Thomas Jefferson Papers, editors replaced some words with others, placing the preservation method into the folkloric. Butterfly gardens operate in a folkloric frame, with each insect as different informational data, but still representing the physical reality of a butterfly.

Chapter 2: Understanding Digital Objects

To fully understand digital preservation, you need to understand the structure of digital information and media. Owens presents three strands of new media scholarship that help with this understanding.

  1. Digital information is material. Digital information is composed of “bits”, the lowest fundamental unit. These bits are encoded in a sequence which are read from one medium and copied to another. Preserving these bits is essential to preserving digital information.
  2. The database is an essential media form for understanding the logic of digital information systems. Instead of reading databases, we query them by organizing information in files, folders, etc. Archives and libraries utilize databases to order collections and files that are finable and accessible by users.
  3. Digital information is best understood as existing in and through a nested set of platforms. Owens utilizes the term platform to describe any type of software the user utilizes. Platforms include operating systems, programming languages, file formats, compression algorithms, and exchange protocols.

Chapter 3: Challenges and Opportunities of Digital Preservation

In the modern age, digital preservation is more concerned with keeping the media information rather than maintaining the platform the media is encoded on. Computers constantly reorganize its storage to optimize files, but it does so by rewriting on the medium itself, adding new media information. Owen’s utilizes the example of Larson’s Word Files and others to describe this phenomenon. The chapter concludes by mentioning how all the layers of the platform need to be studied and interlocked so we can make sense of the complied information.

Chapter 4: The Craft of Digital Preservation

Digital preservation needs to be considered a craft, because it is “grounded in an ongoing dialogue with preservation professionals,” and “must be respondent to the messiness and historically contingent nature of logics of computing,” (Owens, 72). Digital preservation is about crafting the right approach for each preservation context. Digital preservation requires an expansive view of the subject with adequate planning. Due to the evolving digital world and technologies, the solution for preservation is not final. Part of adapting with the changing digital material includes an interactive approach. To ensure digital preservation, you need to establish a policy and enact it through practice. Owens discusses utilizing models as frameworks to find what works and does not work with the preservation method at hand.

2 Replies to “Understanding Digital Content: Media, Materiality, and Format

  1. Hi, Grace! Regarding Chapter 4 of Trevor Owens’ book, I thought it was really interesting in the chapter to discuss digital preservation as a craft since those preservation tactics have to evolve with technology. It makes me wonder about how often digital historians, preservationists, archivists, etc. should review their plans for preservation, especially since technology evolves so quickly. It also makes me ponder how different digital materials might require differing preservation tactics – such as different preservation practices for different material objects – depending on the mode of their creation, when they were created, etc. The book shows that digital archives and digital materials are not going anywhere anytime soon and that future historians, public historians, archivists, etc. need to review preservation practices so that these digital objects can be preserved for posterity.

  2. I found Sterne’s definition of analog to be super interesting because it made me realize I had been using the world all wrong. In fact, I think in I have even referred to something non-digital as analog in this class. To me, my first thought when I hear the word analog is a clock, which is the opposite of a digital clock. I think the most compelling part of Sterne’s essay is the idea of technology progressing the human understanding of analog changing. I was fascinated by how he connected the concept to the senses and perceptions of the world.

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