The Need To Change Our Concept Of Format From A Singular To A Complex Entity

April 4, 2012

“Words give a sentence its luster, and choosing them deserves intense attention.”
— Constance Hale, “Desperately Seeking Synonyms”

I’ve written before about words I’ve given up on, and though I’m not prepared to move on from my particular bête noire, I do have a new bugaboo after having read the article “Archiving, Preservation Move into 21st Century” in TV Technology. Don’t get me wrong — I’m very happy to see the topics of archiving and preservation addressed in broader forums and within more production and distribution centric venues. And the article in question does hit on many of the major issues facing digital preservation, such as longevity, storage, and interoperability.

Seeing as how I cannot seem to write a paragraph without saying “however”, however, I have to take up issue with the use of the broad term format and the elision of its multiple meanings. In the article, formats morph from original legacy media (16mm, BetaCam, etc.) to file formats/wrappers (though no mention of the complexity of codecs is made) to storage media (LTO, etc.) and on to storage methods that involve media but are not media (i.e., The Cloud).

Yes, these are all formats, but they are not the same type of format and, thus, require different methods of management/preservation and, especially with digital assets, are often found in combinations that create a complex system of storage and asset formats. This is in part why I have written that digital preservation is not a format problem but a communication and a resource problem.

Economics and human nature dictate that there will never be a single file format and file storage solution, so the job of the archivist will necessarily be the selection and management of the various options available. This is also why I have written about the need for archivists to better collaborate with IT departments and other stakeholders in order to find or develop solutions that address the functional requirements of the organization.

This is something that the TV Technology article glosses over — especially when considering storage and use of the cloud. From my experience, vendors offering storage and cloud access are still pricing and designing towards text and photos. Costs are calculated at the per GB level. When an hour of moving image content can range from 100GB to 1TB, this kind of pricing structure and technical infrastructure cannot hold — nor can it be afforded by many institutions.

In the end we have to acknowledge that, just like preservation of physical items, the preservation of digital materials involves a range of informed decision points that may not end in the same conclusions as other organizations. Digital is no more of a format than analog is — there are formats that fit within those categories, but to speak about them as singular entities with singular solutions is an 18th century rather than a 21st century mindset.

— Joshua Ranger