Keeping Our Tools Sharp: Approaching the Annual Review of the Library of Congress 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.

Since first launching its Recommended Formats Statement (then called Recommended Format Specifications in 2014), the Library of Congress has committed to treating it as an important part of its digital preservation strategy. As such, it follows two of the key tenets of digital preservation: collaboration and iteration.

The preservation of and provision of long-term access to the full range of digital objects, especially in these relatively early years, are not ones that can be carried out comprehensively or successfully by a single group or institution. This is an effort that must be carried out collaboratively and cooperatively, with an appreciation of the works of others and an imperative to share the work one is carrying out with others as well. Likewise, the great possibility inherent in the digital world for growth, change and development in the creation and dissemination of digital objects requires us to be responsive to those changes. As the objects we wish to preserve and make accessible change and adapt, the plans, practices and rules we create must change and adapt along with them. In short, everything we do in digital preservation must be if not in a constant state of flux, then sufficiently flexible to changes and ideas from across the field.

The Library of Congress’ Recommended Formats Statement has always had this dual charge in mind. The Statement was developed and implemented to help provide Library of Congress staff with guidance in building the collection. It identifies the technical characteristics of both physical and digital works that best encourage preservation and long-term access. This is not aimed at the migration or transformation of content after acquisition by an archiving institution; but looks more towards informing decisions about the creation or acquisition of that content, where such guidance can be of great value.

By Udo Grimberg / Deutsch: Hund der in den Computer schaut [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

By Udo Grimberg / Deutsch: Hund der in den Computer schaut [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

It is crucial that anyone involved with digital works is aware of the full scope of the digital life cycle. For acquiring or creating digital objects that one cannot see throughout their life cycle is an expenditure of resources with diminished returns (and potentially none, if the object is lost as a result). It is worth remembering that ‘a puppy is not just for Christmas’ and neither is a digital object just for the first moment you hold it. The information that the Statement provides Library staff enables them to make more informed decisions, especially in the acquisition and creation of digital works, which will enhance the likelihood that the content can be managed throughout its lifecycle.

The basic information that the Statement provides also has value for other institutions or organizations. Since the Statement is the result of the collective effort at the Library of Congress of experts in all aspects of the creation and distribution of digital objects, the information and hierarchies provided can be useful for one’s own digital preservation planning no matter in what part of the business cycle one is – as a creator, publisher, vendor, archivist, etc.

In order to meet these needs – to share our knowledge and build on it and to ensure that it is in sync with the current state of digital creation and preservation, the Library has actively engaged with its colleagues who are also stakeholders in the digital world. Communication of this work to others who might be interested has been a consistent effort since it first went public almost two years ago. Through conferences, articles, blog posts and listserv messages, the Library has worked to ensure that the information in the Statement gets to anyone who might find it useful in their own work with preservation and long-term access. Nor has this effort fallen on fallow ground. We are pleased to see steady usage of the Recommended Formats Statement website and downloading of the Statement itself every day and every month. Moreover, the dissemination of this work is now being undertaken by others as well as by the Library itself.

This past autumn, the Digital Preservation Coalition included the Statement in its Digital Preservation Handbook. Around the same time, the Association for Library Collections & Technical Services recommended the Statement as a resource in one of its e-forums. Beyond the undeniable pleasure of this sort of validation of our efforts from such esteemed colleagues, the sharing of our work by others helps increase greatly the exposure of the Statement and the chances that the information in it will get to people who could use that information or who might have valuable input on how to improve it. Both outcomes are crucial to our digital preservation efforts.

In complement to the general dissemination of the Statement for the use of others, the Library determined that an annual review of the Statement would ensure that it remains current and useful, to the Library itself and to other stakeholders. Beyond giving its in-house experts the chance to review their work in light of any new knowledge or experience, the Library actively solicits feedback from across the digital preservation sphere, in order to make the best possible revised and updated version. As malleable as the universe of digital creation can be, we do not expect whole-scale change across the board; but we do know that some things will change, even if just our understanding of them and so reviewing our work is very much worth the effort.

The Library has already completed one round of this review and revision, to very good effect. The feedback from across the spectrum enabled us to create a far more user-friendly document and one with important revisions, most notably to our still image file formats and to our audio works metadata. This revision did not create an entirely new document; but it did create a better one.

By ANKDADA007 / Human_pyramid_by_little_kids [CC BY 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

By ANKDADA007 / Human_pyramid_by_little_kids [CC BY 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Now we are looking at our second annual revision of the Recommended Formats Statement. Between March and June, our teams of experts here at the Library will be reviewing their sections of the Statement and making whatever changes they feel will improve it in the new edition due out at the end of June. And in this, we very much would like and need the input of our external stakeholders, from some of whom we have heard already. Beyond our general belief that the Statement has some value for anyone involved in digital preservation, given the documented use and dissemination of the Statement, we know that there are those out there who agree with us. So, please share your thoughts, comments, feedback and input with us, either through this post, the contacts page or by e-mailing me (thwe at loc dot gov.)  The work we are attempting to do with the Recommended Formats Statement will have all the more value in this great collaborative effort of digital preservation the more guidance we get from you in developing and improving it.

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