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Making a valuable resource even better: the Recommended Formats Statement and RFS 2.0

Today’s guest post is from Jesse Johnston (Sr. Research Development Officer Office of Research, Office of the Vice President for Research, University of Michigan), Kate Murray (Digital Projects Coordinator, Digital Collections Management & Services Division), Marcus Nappier (Digital Collections Specialist, Digital Content Management Section), and Ted Westervelt, Chief, US/Anglo Division.

It has become ever more crucial to understand what characteristics of creative works will not simply confer immediate value, but enable long-term use as the array of create works grow with varying degrees of nuance involved in their creation, especially in the digital world.  Since its introduction in 2014, the Recommended Formats Statement (RFS) has been a vital service to identify those characteristics that the Library has provided both for the use of its own staff, but equally for the use of the world at large.  After five years of increasing use by, and value to, the community, the Library has taken a closer look at how to make this resource even more useful to stakeholders and to those involved in the lifecycle of creative works.

The RFS identifies hierarchies of the physical and technical characteristics of creative formats, both analog and digital, which will best meet the needs of creators, publishers, and cultural heritage institutions, thereby maximizing the chances for survival and continued accessibility of creative content well into the future. For the Library, the RFS fulfills two primary functions related to planning for the preservation and access of materials: first, it provides internal guidance that informs the Library’s acquisition decisions (other than materials received through the Copyright Office); and second, it informs the creative and library communities on best practices for ensuring the preservation of, and long-term access to, the creative output of the nation and the world. These recommendations encourage the use of preservation and management formats, but the RFS does not necessarily intend to direct creators to transform their files into a different format. To the extent possible, the recommending officers of the Library, who help to build and shape the Library’s collections, should follow the RFS when planning for digital or analog acquisitions.

Especially as the Library continues to plan and prioritize the collecting of digital material, it becomes increasingly important to further develop the ways that the RFS expresses statements about digital formats. In the past, some of the content categories were determined by practices of digitizing materials, which had generally similar processes in the analog world but are diverging in the digital realm. For example, the digitization of textual works and musical works follows similar imaging workflows, but for born-digital works there are often drastically different format considerations. Likewise, some categories see more crossover in the digital realm. For example, geospatial digital materials often combine characteristics of still images and datasets in the digital representation of maps and other geographical representations. In light of changes like these, we are undertaking a major revision process that will result in changes for the way that the 2020-2021 edition presents the Library’s recommendations about digital formats.

We are currently dubbing these changes “RFS 2.0,” which will reflect advances in the community at large as well as from the Library of Congress. The changes in RFS 2.0 will move the Library of Congress toward a “Level of Service” model by defining more clearly, why certain formats may be designated “preferred” or “acceptable.” This work will be grounded in an understanding of similar models from peer institutions, such as the National Archives and Records Administration, Library and Archives Canada, National Library of Australia, large research libraries, and others. We are drawing on already established factors in the community, including the seven “sustainability factors” that the Library already uses for the evaluation of digital formats: disclosure, adoption, transparency, self-documentation, external dependencies, impact of patents, and technical protection mechanisms. We will also consider local factors, such as staff and systems capacity for working with and understanding particular formats. We are developing a common template for all content categories to increase consistency for the designation of digital formats, which has also allowed the Library to reorganize the Recommended Formats Statement to better align with the ways works are created and the ways in which their communities use them.

Given all these deep revisions, the Library has put the ‘RFS 2.0’ online in draft and is actively seeking the input of relevant stakeholders – creators, distributors, librarians & archivists – in order to make the new ‘RFS 2.0’ even more useful than the Recommended Formats Statement has proven over the past six years.  The Library is counting on each of you to share your thoughts and comments with us here by August 15, in order to make the fundamental improvements truly useful for everyone.

As America’s foremost cultural heritage institution, the Library understands its responsibility to the nation and the world. With regard to the Recommended Formats Statement, the Library is thus well aware of the need to identify the characteristics necessary to support preservation and realizes that others involved in the lifecycle for creative works also have an interest. From the authors, artists, musicians and programmers who create works, to the vendors and publishers who distribute them, to the organizations and institutions that dedicate resources to preserving them – all have a compelling interest in ensuring the survival of these works and the continued ability of people to use and enjoy them.

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