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Data file formats

In order to read most types of digital data, you need to open it in a compatible software application. Unfortunately, as software applications change or disappear over time, data file formats can become obsolete. If there is a risk of your data format becoming obsolete during its useful lifetime, you may need to convert it to a new format. The resources needed to do this could be included as a budget item in your data management plan.

What should I look for in a sustainable file format?

In general, a sustainable format:

  • Adheres to pubclically documented (not proprietary) specifications.
  • Is in widespread use and readable with available software.
  • Is self-describing, i.e., contains embedded metadata that help interpret the context and structure of the data file.
  • Contains as much of the original information as possible.

What are some current examples of sustainable file formats?

For common types of files, these formats are recommended:

File Type Recommended Format
Word processing document TXT, RTF, PDF/A, XML
Spreadsheet/Database TXT, RTF (Delimited), XML
Image TIFF, JPEG2000
Audio File WAV, MPEG4, AIFF
Video File AVI, MXF, MOV, Motion JPEG2000

For non-standard or other uncommon file types, contact your program officer or external data repository for information on preferred formats. See also the Library of Congress’ Sustainability of Digital Formats format descriptions.

Page last updated on: 01/29/2014