Keeping Up With the Joneses: The New Recommended Formats Statement

The following post is by Ted Westervelt, head of acquisitions and cataloging for U.S. Serials in the Arts, Humanities & Sciences section at the Library of Congress.

Issuing the Recommended Format Specifications

When the Recommended Format Specifications were issued last summer, the Library of Congress was making an attempt to come to grips with the challenges of building a comprehensive collection when the formats in which that content are being created are broad and getting broader. The charge of the Library is to acquire content both broadly and deeply, regardless of geography, subject or format. But it is not enough to merely collect this content. The Library must also manage and preserve that content, so that our patrons may have access to it, both those who use the Library’s collection today and those who will use it in decades and centuries to come.

EBook between paper books by user Maximilian Schönherr via Wikimedia Commons

EBook between paper books by user Maximilian Schönherr via Wikimedia Commons

This charge makes the issue of the formats exceptionally important. This has been true with physical formats, but it becomes even more challenging when the world of digital creation is included. And there is no denying that a major part of any well-rounded and comprehensive collection consists of digital materials. Yet the great advantage of digital content – its flexibility in terms of how it can be created and distributed – is also a potential weakness, as that flexibility can require more resources to ensure that it is preserved and remains accessible.

Therefore, the Library some years back began working on identifying the characteristics of creative works, both physical and digital, which encourage preservation and long-term access. Using an array of staff within the Library who are experts in the business of acquisitions, who understand the needs of our patrons and the technologies of creative works, the Library was able to develop the Recommended Format Specifications.

Goals of the Recommended Formats

The fundamental goal of the Recommended Format Specifications document (PDF) was to provide guidance, both for staff in the Library and for our external stakeholders who share our interest in preservation and long-term access of creative works. For Library staff, the Recommended Formats provide them with lists of characteristics that can help them make an informed decision when it comes to acquiring content for the collection. An acquisitions specialist can determine whether potential acquisitions might need more or fewer resources on the part of the Library to ensure that they remain accessible to patrons as the years go on. Likewise, whether it is a creator, publisher, producer, vendor or archiving institution, the Recommended Formats offer them some informed advice on what they should be using or looking for when creating, managing, distributing or saving creative works. It is not the final word, but the Recommended Formats do provide an educated analysis of the technical aspects of creative works.

In issuing the Recommended Formats, the Library knew that it was not drawing a line under the matter and could leave it there. The business of preservation and long-term access is one beyond the scope of a single institution to manage on its own, especially with the proliferation of digital content in various formats. This is an effort that can only be accomplished by collaboration and cooperation among all the parties that have an interest in ensuring that content lasts and remains accessible. And that common interest extends to anyone or any institution that is involved with creative works, from the person who creates a work, to the publisher or producer who makes it ready for distribution to the vendor who sells it to the individual or institution who wants to keep it. Everyone has a vested interest in ensuring that these works last.

skydivers by user tpsdave via pixabay

skydivers by user tpsdave via pixabay

Moreover, there can be no disputing that fact that how works are created and the technical characteristics they have are changing all the time. To create a list of the technical characteristics in 2014 and then expect that to remain solid and unchanging would be folly. So, from the start, the Library has been actively committed to getting feedback from those other stakeholders so that it can identify the aspects that need improvement as part of an annual cycle of revisions to the Recommended Formats. By addressing them on a yearly basis, and by actively soliciting the input of others, we increase the likelihood that the Recommended Formats will remain accurate and useful, not merely for the Library but for any other stakeholder who cares about preservation and long-term access.

Updating the Recommended Formats

Almost as soon as the Recommended Formats were issued in June 2014, the Library has been communicating them to others and has made it as clear as possible that their feedback is actively encouraged so that we can make the Recommended Formats the best they can be. And we are very glad to say that we have received a lot of very positive and constructive feedback from across the range of stakeholders.

We were very pleased at the responses from some of the national libraries, such as the National Library of New Zealand, which is going to refer questions on preferred formats to this document, and the British Library, who found the Recommended Formats useful in developing their own guidance for legal deposit submissions. And we are happy that the positive feedback extended beyond the library world, ranging from experts in photography to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

We were just as pleased at the receipt of constructive advice on how the Recommended Formats could be improved. Some of this feedback was very specific. There were some very beneficial revisions to the file formats for Still Images as a result of both internal consultation and feedback from experts in the field. Likewise, the generally supportive response from the RIAA included suggestions on changes to the metadata for Audio Works that we have included.

Screenshot of the new Recommended Formats Statement Still Image Works.

Screenshot of the new Recommended Formats Statement Still Image Works.

But the best feedback we received is reflected in the layout and presentation. This starts with the new name, the Recommended Formats Statement, which we hope will make it clearer that this document is not technical specifications but a broader guide for a larger pool of users. And we are very pleased to present the statement in a new, tabular layout, suggested by our colleagues at the National Agricultural Library, which we think makes the content clearer and far more accessible. Between that and highlighting the metadata by arranging it in lists, we feel this is a document that, now that we know others are interested in it, will be all the more useful for them and for us.

Welcoming Feedback

But please let us know! This is the 2015-2016 version of the Recommended Formats Statement (PDF), which means that, now that it is done, we are ready to start hearing about what we should do to make next year’s version even more useful, whether that it is in change to the content or improvements to the layout. This is an ongoing process and one in which we actively seek the feedback and participation or our colleagues from throughout the lifecycle of creative works. We hope that together, we can use the Recommended Formats Statement as a good first step to enable us all to enjoy creative works which will last so that future generations can enjoy them tomorrow as much as we do today.

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