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The Harvard University Library (HUL) has received a grant of $600,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the development of a registry of authoritative information about digital formats. Detailed information about the format of digital resources is fundamental to their preservation. The two-year project will result in a new Global Digital Format Registry (GDFR), which will become a key international infrastructure component for the digital preservation programs of libraries, archives and other institutions with the responsibility for keeping digital resources viable over time. Development of the Registry will be informed by the considerable expertise in digital preservation the Harvard libraries have acquired through Harvard's Library Digital Initiative. An earlier Harvard contribution to the international digital preservation community is JHOVE, a tool developed in cooperation with JSTOR that is widely used to analyze and validate the format of digital objects.
The wide diversity and rapid pace of adoption and abandonment of digital formats present an ongoing problem for long-term preservation efforts. As noted in the October 2002 planning report of the Library of Congress (Preserving Our Digital Heritage: Plan for the National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program), "Longevity of digital data and the ability to read those data in the future depend upon standards for encoding and describing, but standards change over time."
According to Dale Flecker, associate director of the Harvard University Library, "All digital preservation programs must document the format of the objects they are preserving. Without precise knowledge of format, a digital object is merely a collection of undifferentiated bits. Creating a shared registry of such documentation will save an enormous amount of duplicative effort in acquiring and recording such documentation. It also allows the community to share expertise in formats, so that each institution does not require deep local expertise in every format of data it is preserving."
GDFR will be established as a distributed service in which participating research libraries, archives, and other organizations with preservation responsibilities can contribute, as well as use, format-typing information. According to Stephen Abrams, digital library program manager in HUL's Office for Information Systems, "GDFR will be a sustainable service available to any preservation institution that chooses to participate. From the outset, we've envisioned the registry as a distributed network of individual 'nodes.' Each node will have a full copy of all the format-typing data in the GDFR. Carefully vetted information and updates will be distributed among the nodes following appropriate technical review. GDFR will also provide a separate track for distributing non-vetted information, so that problems and issues identified in the course of daily work can be quickly shared by participants."
Major American research libraries are supporting Harvard's efforts to develop the GDFR. MacKenzie Smith, associate director of technology for the MIT Libraries, stated, "The establishment of a digital format registry will be a major contribution to our ability to keep digital content viable into the future, and I am grateful that Harvard is willing to take the initiative to build it and coordinate our efforts to use it." In the words of John Ockerbloom, digital library planner and architect for the University of Pennsylvania Library, "Such a system will aid in digital development and preservation not only at my library, but also at many other institutions worldwide. Having open, globally recognized naming, definitions, and documentation of data formats will greatly improve the abilities of libraries and content-management software to use, adapt and share a wide variety of digital content."
For current information and updates on GDFR, visit the project web site at http://hul.harvard.edu/gdfr/.