Choosing The Right File Format/Introduction

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File formats are the language of a computer's memory. Choosing the right format for the electronic information we want to store is one important step in making good use of computers and minimising problems.

This book tries to help you choose the file format best suited to its use. It concentrates on two purposes of storing your information (data).

  • Portability and interoperability
  • Digital Preservation

Portability and Interoperability is the ability of your data to be read (interpreted) by different software and hardware. The most common portable format in use now is the PDF (Portable Document Format) for sending documents over the internet. Somewhat more troublesome is the exchanging of address information between email software.

Digital Preservation can be defined as long-term, error-free storage of digital information, with means for retrieval and interpretation of needed files from the long-term, error-free digital storage, for all the time span that the information is required for.

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Planning for an unpredictable future is known as future proofing, although you can't really know if you are future proof you can practice risk reduction and learn from the mistakes of history. This article focuses on future proofing of computer files. This article gives tips for creating files in a manner which makes them easy to preserve and later access, and for avoiding pitfalls that could make your files difficult to access later. Looking after the files you already have is known as digital preservation.

Where future proofing and digital preservation deal with the rather etheric matter of electronic files and their formats, then your next concern is the media on which your information is stored. That is an area of study in itself, and is not the subject of this article.

Both future proofing of information and the media it is stored on are vital in any thorough review of your IT systems. Will you be able to read the files you're working on now in 5 years time? Do you know if all the old files you have now are still readable?

The chance of electronic files being readable in 5 or 10 years is not something to leave up to chance. Active intervention is needed in most cases. Migrating to software/hardware that supports openly published standards is the most effective single step in any plan to future-proof.