Choose the right materials and formats
Table of contents
The file format you choose will affect how records are preserved and managed. The choice of format becomes more critical the longer a record has to be kept.
Avoid high risk file formats where possible, including those:
- that are or will soon be obsolete
- that are no longer supported by the developer
- where the developer will not share information about the format
- that use ‘lossy’ compression techniques
- accessed or read with unsupported hardware or software
- restricted by intellectual property or that use digital rights management.
File formats for long-term temporary and permanent records should be:
- based on open, documented standards, particularly those developed by standards organisations
- an open or open propriety format as opposed to closed proprietary
- developed by a community rather than by single vendor
- portable (can be independent of specific hardware, operating systems and software)
- commonly used (at least within a specific community of practice)
- not encumbered by intellectual property restrictions
- uncompressed or use lossless compression
|File type||Open formats||Open proprietary formats||Closed proprietary formats|
|Word processing||OpenDocument Text (.odt)||
|Spreadsheet||OpenDocument Spreadsheet (.ods)||
|Presentation||OpenDocument Presentation (.odp)||
(including digital photographs)
|Document exchange||Portable Document Format (PDF)||Open XML Paper Specification (XPS)|
||AutoCAD Drawing Exchange Format (.dxf)||
|Graphics metafiles||Computer Graphics Metafile (.cgm)||Windows Enhanced Metafile (.emf)||
||MPEG-2 Audio Layer 3 (MP3)||
Note: Microsoft Office formats after 2003 and Microsoft Office Open XML formats are not supported by the Queensland Government Enterprise Architecture due to archiving and interchangeability issues. For more information, refer to the QGEA policy on Office Formats.
Characteristics and risks of open, open proprietary and closed proprietary formats
Open formats are low-risk. They:
- are supported by a wide range of software or are platform independent
- can be used and changed by anyone without restrictions (except for licensing conditions that may limit development of commercialised versions of software)
- support long-term data sustainability by allowing migration from one technical environment to another, without locking into a specific vendor
- are free to be implemented by anyone, including both proprietary and free and open source software, using the typical licenses deployed by each
- are more likely to be ‘future proofed’ by the development community
- are usually developed through a publicly visible, community-driven process with publicly available intellectual property and format specifications.
Open proprietary formats
Open proprietary formats:
- are moderate—medium risk because they are controlled by a corporate entity under licensing arrangements that may change
- can usually only be used by licensed applications
- are developed by companies, possibly in consultation with a user community
- may share the intellectual property and technical specifications, but there may be restrictions.
Closed proprietary formats
Closed proprietary formats are medium—high risk file formats and should not be used unless necessary. They:
- carry greater risk to long-term data accessibility because the licence holders control the way the technology is used to the (current or future) exclusion of others.
- can only be accessed using the software that produced that file, or licensed applications
- do not share the intellectual property or technical specifications
- are not future-proof because the specification and licensing requirements are not publicly available.
A record in a closed proprietary format may become lost or inaccessible when the format changes.
Risk assessment for file formats
- the degree of use, both worldwide and within a community of practice
- dependencies on particular hardware or software and level of interoperability
- the openness and public standardisation of format specifications, and impact of patents
- the transparency of the format, including compression and human readability
- available metadata support, including self-documentation
- whether the formats include digital rights management and the degree of technical protection and encryption involved
- the level of backwards and forwards compatibility, and compatibility with other software or hardware
- the robustness and complexity of the format
- the ability to manipulate and reuse file contents
- whether it uses ‘lossy’ compression (higher risk, smaller file size) or lossless compression (lower risk), or is an uncompressed file format (lowest risk, larger file size)
- whether it is an open, open proprietary or closed proprietary format.
File formats can be identified using filename extensions or by using one of these free tools:
- XENA (XML Electronic Normalising for Archives) developed by the National Archives of Australia
- DROID (Digital Record Object Identification) developed by The National Archives UK
- JHOVE2 developed by the Library of Congress
- Metadata extraction tool developed by the National Library of New Zealand.
The PRONOM technical registry includes advice on the level of adoption and support, degree of disclosure, quality of documentation, sustainability, ease of identification, intellectual property rights, metadata support, complexity, interoperability and reusability of many formats.
What makes paper unstable?
Paper breaks down chemically and physically as it ages. Its chemical degradation creates products that can contaminate and react with other records. Aged paper is more susceptible to damage when handled.
The condition of paper over time is determined by the quality and type, how it has been made, what is in it and how it has been used, stored and handled.
Archival quality paper will undergo little or no change in its properties.
Types of paper
Recycled content is measured as a percentage of the paper’s weight. This may not be detailed on the product label, making it difficult to gauge its durability and longevity.
Recycled paper may be adequate for records of short-term retention, drafts and other casual use.
Thermal paper is highly unstable. The text can fade within months and may not last longer than 5 years. We do not recommend using thermal paper. Records created on this paper should be copied to a better paper or scanned electronically.
Permanent paper must meet certain standards and specifications. Paper advertised as lasting 100 years, ‘durable’, ‘acid-free’, ‘lignin-free’ and ‘buffered’ does not necessarily meet these relevant standards. Archival paper will be watermarked or have packaging labelled with a statement of compliance with the relevant standard(s).
AS 4003-1996: Australian Standard for Permanent Paper governs the permanence and durability of paper and how it is stored. It defines permanent paper as paper ‘which during long term storage in libraries, archives and other protected environments will undergo little or no change in properties that affect its use’.
The optimal climate-controlled conditions stipulated in AS 4003-1996 will not guarantee the continued strength of paper.
For records with a retention period of 30 years or more, the paper is required to meet the National Archives of Australia’s (NAA) technical specification for archival paper.
These specifications require the paper to have increased pH levels and lignin-free content. Paper that is compliant with the NAA specification will have the following NAA registered trademark.
ISO 18916:2007 Imaging materials–Processed imaging materials–Photographic activity test for enclosure materials applies to paper (and other materials) to use to store photographic materials.
Choose the right paper
The type of paper you should use depends on the record’s retention requirements, use and likely storage conditions.
|Record type||Types of paper||Standard||Alternative options|
|Permanent or long-term temporary records–library and archival conditions not met.||Permanent paper||NAA approved|
|Permanent or long-term temporary records–library and archival conditions are met.||Permanent paper||NAA approved||ISO 9706 (minimum)
|Permanent or long-term temporary records–subject to frequent use and handling.||Permanent paper||ISO 9706/
|Short-term temporary records||Office paper
(Both recycled and no recycled content)
|Transitory records only||Thermal paper||Nil||Not recommended for records–scan or copy to an alternative paper type|
Suppliers of archival quality paper
See a list of suppliers of papers that meet the NAA specification. Papers that meet ISO 9706/AS 4003 are available from most stationery suppliers.