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.

Do You Know DC? A #historytok

Digital Proposal by Grace Conroy

There’s no question that TikTok has become one of the leading social media sites. Over the past few years, many people have become obsessed with the app. 

So, what is TikTok? 

TikTok is an app that lets creators produce short videos from fifteen seconds to three minutes. The content of these videos is entirely up to the creators. In 2020, dancing was the most popular type of content. However, over time, TikTok began to cover a broader scope of videos, including videos dedicated to comedy, heartwarming content, celebrity gossip, workout routines, traveling,  etc. One of the neat things about TikTok is that after utilizing the app for a few days, it will reconfigure your “For Your Page” or “FYP.” This reconfiguration shows app users similar videos they have interacted with the most. For example, if someone were to go down a rabbit hole watching videos of celebrity gossip, they would be more likely to see content regarding gossip appear on their FYP. 

Here are some examples of what covers of TikTok videos look like.

I will use TikTok to create historical videos about DC for my digital project. I’m hoping to title my account “doyouknowDC,” but it may be unavailable. For each video, I will choose a different part of DC to focus on. Ideally, I would like to focus on more unknown aspects of DC history. 

A few ideas I have so far include the following:

  • Finding the oldest restaurant, researching its history, and reviewing its food
  • Revealing an unknown fact about one of the Smithsonian museums 
  • Investigating to see where Presidents and their wives have gone on dates (if this is applicable, it may be hard to find) 
Ben’s Chili Bowl, located on U St. in DC, served as a meeting place for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to focus on topics that help people learn more about the city they are in, while also inviting them to partake in the city’s history, e.g., for them to want to go to the oldest restaurant or Smithsonian because of seeing my video. 

History TikToks already exist and see active engagement from the digital community. For my digital project, I am interested in evaluating the traffic my TikTok account will get. Based on the traffic, I will be able to tell what videos people find the most interesting regarding DC history and learn more about how to make history enticing to digital audiences. I plan to construct five three-minute videos for this project. To try and promote my account, I will follow other history accounts, make creative content professionally and aesthetically, utilize hashtags, and interact with other accounts by liking and commenting on their posts. 

I’m excited to dive into the creative process of producing TikTok videos and see what audiences find appealing. Follow me at @doyouknowdc TikTok! (I will make an edit to this post later if the name changes due to unavailability).

Is Hulu’s ‘The Great’ really that great?

Print Proposal by Grace Conroy

Hulu’s The Great starring Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great and Nicholas Hoult as Peter III of Russia.

I’ll be honest, I have not seen more than half an episode of The Great, so my opinion on this question is irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong, I love satire, I love history, and I love Catherine the Great (r. 1762 – 1797). Unfortunately, it’s my love for Catherine the Great that made me dislike the show so much. 

To provide a bit of context on my Catherine the Great knowledge, I read Robert K. Massie’s biography in eighth grade. And again after my sophomore year of high school. I immediately became fascinated by this minor German princess, Sophie, who came to be Catherine the Great. I have such an endearment for Catherine II, that I named my pug after her. She goes by “Kitty” for short. And interestingly enough, Catherine the Great’s aunt supposedly had sixteen pugs. 

Robert K. Massie’s biography can be bought on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

All that to say, when I finally sat down to watch The Great, I instantly became annoyed with the satirical aspect of the show. I am interested in investigating how the show has been received by other Catherine the Great aficionados, specifically historians. To track historians opinions about The Great, I plan to scour Reddit, Twitter, and HNet. I will also do research on more professional platforms, like JSTOR, to see if historians have published articles about their opinions. I could also include analysis on historians view on historical satire in general, using other television shows or movies, such as Jojo Rabbit. 

My leading research questions are: 

  1. How do historians view The Great? Do they appreciate its satire? If they don’t appreciate the satire, why is this so?
  2. In what ways does The Great differ from historical truth? 
  3. How do historians view other satirical forms of history? What do they like or dislike about historical satire? How does The Great fit into their views? 
  4. At the end of the day, does it matter how historians feel about The Great?
  5. Who are historical satires geared towards and what do producers hope to get out of releasing such work? 
  6. Are historical satires potentially dangerous? 
  7. Does historical satire encourage viewers to research the true history? 

Most of my questions can work for any piece of historical satire, but my focus for this project will be on The Great. By searching Reddit, Twitter, and HNet I can assess how historians view The Great versus non-historians. Preliminary examination of the subreddit r/TheGreatHulu reveals that watchers tag r/AskHistorians about questions they have regarding the real events behind the show. This will be useful when answering question #7. If I’m lucky, hopefully in some of their responses, historians will provide insight into their view on the show. However, further research utilizing Twitter tags such as #TheGreat #TheGreatHulu #historicalsatire and a compilation of other terms should reveal some inkling of where historians stand. For HNet, I will examine past posts regarding The Great, as well as pose my own question of simply “How do you, as historians, feel about historical satire and specifically, The Great’s usage of historical satire?”

Lastly, and begrudgingly, I recognize that to accurately create this paper, I will need to force myself to watch the show. And who knows, maybe I’ll actually enjoy it! 

For fun, here is a portrait of Russian noblewoman Ekaterina Dmitrievna Golitsyna and her pet pug in 1759 by artist Louis Michel van Loo. While Ekaterina was not related to Catherine II (to clarify, this is NOT Catherine’s aunt that had sixteen pugs), she was a friend to Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741 – 1762).

Who is Grace Conroy?

A few months ago, my sister asked me, “Who is Grace Conroy? What is the first thing that comes to mind? Don’t overthink it.” My answer was “mother to pug, public historian, lover of books, good food, and drinks, and I prefer to spend time with those I love.”

After asking her why she randomly texted me at 3:39 PM on a Saturday to define myself, I learned she asked other family members and close friends the same question to test a hypothesis (a point of context for my sister is that she is in her fourth year of earning her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the University of Houston). Her hypothesis was that people define themselves by their roles; in other words, one’s identity is defined by their relationships to others.

It’s interesting to see how others define themselves and what parameters they form their identity around. At this point in time and after some thought to the question, I would define myself as “mother to pug, public historian, lover of books, good food and drinks, sister, daughter, friend, girlfriend, and runner, with a touch of anxiety.” And yes, I do realize that my adapted definition includes more roles (maybe your hypothesis had some truth in it, Haley). But for the sake of this class, I will focus on who I am as a scholar and where I want to be post-post-graduation.

Unlike some historians, I do not have a certain area or time period of interest. In my junior year of undergrad, when I interned at the University of Houston’s Public Center for History and its magazine Houston History, I learned that I enjoyed producing history for various topics. During my time with Houston History, I created stories through oral histories and research. I realized that I enjoyed bringing history outside the classroom and presenting it to a public audience. One of my career paths is to join a podcast or production company and work as a generalized researcher for given topics. However, I also fell in love with the process of writing and editing at Houston History, so my other career path is to work for an academic publishing company focusing on historical works or a trade press and focus on nonfiction works.

With either avenue, I foreshadow a heavy digital component. From this course, I hope to learn the ins and outs of producing history online, while also playing around with my “blog voice” and testing new ways to present information.

For those curious, here is a picture of my pug. Her name is Catherine the Great, but she goes primarily by Kitty.