A whole hour discussing file formats!


I departed from earth this afternoon. I’m not sure where I went but this session on file formats and then a further session on digital records management took me places I never thought I’d go.

The title of this class was ‘File Formats: Matters to Consider’, and I found it fascinating.

First, we were shown where file formats fit in the hierarchy of the IT system:

Semantic Layer
Actions Layer
Format Layer (Alright!)
Filesystem Layer
Media Layer

Then an anecdote about how some file formats and their creating applications are better used for some tasks and not for others. The tutor knew someone who wrote a novel in Excel because he didn’t have any other software to hand and I guess curiosity didn’t get the better of him either.

We did a quick exercise in what features to look for in a file format for preservation purposes. Not too difficult:

Open, documented, widely used and therefore supported, interoperable over different Operating Systems, lossless/no compression, metadata support, etc. etc.

Another anecdote was that ten years ago, two men wrote a book detailing over 3000 graphic file formats. As the number of formats grew, it was revised and issued on a CD-ROM. Now it’s updated on the web. I’m sure Tim would love it.

I’ll state this here: ADAM handles two graphic file formats for a reason. They are both open, documented, widely used, well supported, interoperable and have metadata support. The list of supported graphic file formats may double or triple over time, but 3000+ demonstrates what an industry digital archives are having to deal with.

If you want guidance on file formats (and who doesn’t?), then look no further than these fine institutions:

FCLA Digital Archive
Harvard University formats registry
ERPAnet file formats
Library of Congress (my favourite).

We finished up by looking at the conversion of file formats, something which presents problems when you want to preserve the original integrity of the file’s content but in a more suitable or non-obsolete file format.

I could go on about file formats but let’s face it, we’ve both had enough for one day. Let’s talk at length in the ‘breakout’ area when I get back, OK?


6 Responses to “A whole hour discussing file formats!”

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