Content Management

Rory Bowman at

Some discussion of program-specific tricks with document mark-up in a different thread has me reviewing my basic rules for content management: how to handle large amounts of information in a business or a project (such as a dissertation, geneology project or book) over a long period of time.

The main thing to remember is that you are managing CONTENT and not MARKUP. The layout of elements on the page in a particular program such as InDesign or in a way such as an HTML table should not be the main focus of your work. Techniques which used to be the provenance of typesetters have become alternative ways to think for many content creators, to the detriment of the content.

  1. Keep data in the simplest, stable format possible.
  2. Periodically “publish” your data with whatever tools you choose.
  3. Never trap your data in a proprietary format.
  4. Back up and check the integrity of your data from time to time.
  5. Have a plan to maintain the integrity of your content over time.

Keep data in the simplest, stable format possible.

There are hundreds of possible formats for storing data which will appear essentially the same when printed, but some of these are stable and will endure. Others are not. A stage set or a cardboard mock-up of a town may look the same as an authentic, stone-crafted village, but they are not. For most text the only stable format is plain ASCII text, which has been around since the 1960’s and will probably be around for the next thirty years. If your documents can be conveyed in plain ASCII text they are more likely to survive, which is why archival projects such as Project Gutenberg use that format.

For graphics and sound the default formats are TIFF (the same format as fax machines use) and AIFF (the same format used by commercial audio CD’s), because these are “lossless” and have proven stable over time. For page-display formats HTML 4.01 or Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) are probably simplest, but even these are not as stable as keeping the various components of your content in stable formats.

Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word can work with these formats and “save out” to these formats, but content stored in programs such as this should not be considered stable for archival purposes. There is a very good historical reason that old books usually had different page types and tables of content for narrative text, plates/pictures/maps and tables.

Periodically “publish” your data with whatever tools you choose.

Having said that, most people do not create content to archive it but to publish it and share it with others. If you think the best way to get your data out to people is with a Flash animation or a Power-Point slideshow, then by all means use it! The reason that programs such as Photoshop or Word are so popular is because they are relatively easy for non-experts to use and can create documents which are “good enough” for their intended audience. Purists rarely get things published and “real artists ship.” We create content so that it can be used, just don’t confuse publishing content with preserving it.

Never trap your data in a proprietary format.

“History is littered with Maginot Lines” and landfills are bulging with obsolete media. From punch-cards to 5.5″ floppy disks to weird tapes and removable media, data can be trapped in particular programs or on particular disks as surely as it can be lost. Almost every company who has ever computerized their bookkeeping has years of data which it cannot access because the programs they used to record it have changed. Unless they had the foresight to print out or export general ledger information, that data might as well not exist. The single whiz-bang program that seems the answer to alll your prayers is probably only a quick fix for an immediate problem you have not thought all the way through.

If your data is in a proprietary format, consider what is most important and export or save a sub-set of that data out to a more stable format. If your doctor thesis is in WordStar, create a single ASCII copy or print one out to be read or scanned later. The British Museum has the Rosetta Stone and there is paper from the pharoahs but no one owns a single forty-year-old floppy disk.

Back up and check the integrity of your data from time to time.

One copy is right next door to no copy at all, and technology changes. Anything worth saving should be copied to new media every year or two, to avoid media obsolescence and also to make sure that read/write problems are detected immediately, while they can still be fixed. Printing out another copy is easier than re-typing and re-typing is surer than remembory. “The faintest ink is better than the clearest memory,” at least for figures.

Have a plan to maintain the integrity of your content over time.

Some things are worth saving and some are not. Decide what is worth saving and organize it now so that you can find it to safeguard it and you don’t have to go looking for it “someplace’ in a pile of obsolete media ten years from now. Just as pioneer families would have a cedar chest or family bible to store precious data and heirlooms, you should have a plan for the content you think important. If a project was a one-off that can be discarded, that is fine. But if you plan to keep it, you had best PLAN to keep it.

Much of the wisdom of our age was preserved only because of methodical monks.

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1 Response to Content Management

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    There are a variety of options available for those interested in using a content management system, either internally or externally. As with most things in business and in life, where you want to go determines how you travel…

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