It is important for any institution that certain things be standardized. A blueprint would be confusing if it used both metric and imperial standards of measurement. Similarly an institution will have difficulties if one department keeps there computer records in a file format that is incompatible with the other departments. At best files will keep losing formatting as they pass from department to department and are saved as different file types. At worst a file might become almost worthless when the file format becomes outdated to the point that it can no longer be converted into another file type.
In the case of electronic reserves most libraries have set standard file types that can be accessed with free readers. SUNY Buffalo uses the Portable Document Format (pdf) for written works and Real Media Files (rm) for stream media content. Both of these are simple formats that take up relatively little server space and are fairly flexible. The readers at no cost for most operating systems.
Both file formats also have negatives. The pdfs often can not meet accessibility standards due to images (which confusion optical reader software) and the use of older pdf formats that might give conversion software problems. Also since pdfs are technically images converting them to other formats is often time consuming and difficult. Real media was a common software time when it was first adopted in the late nineteen nineties, but as since fallen out of fashion. The player is still freely available, but students have become used to not downloading a media player at all and this can cause confusion and frustration. Additionally since it is a proprietary file format rm does not easily convert into other streaming media formats.
This illustrates several pitfalls in selecting a file format.
First it must be a cross platform format that is popular enough for a reasonable expectation of access. During the late nineties the Real Media player and format had a dominant position in the market for streaming media. However the growth of Adobe’s Flash media player pushed Real Media into a niche position. These days people rarely consider downloading a separate media player for streaming materials since most of it can be displayed in browser with a few simple plug-ins. No one could have seen the change coming, but it did. Adobe as retained a dominate position with Adobe, but files still need to be converted to early types for some users and that often prevents the proper display of fonts, graphics, and some formatting features.
Conversion of legacy materials is the second file format problem. Most proprietary formats do not easily convert, which causes conversion to be a long, labor intensive, and potentially expensive process. If you choose not to convert legacy materials then, at least temporarily, negated the point of standardizing your file formats. Users will encounter a confusing number of formats until all of the older materials fall out of use.
The last problem with selecting a format is a matter of advertising. Once a file format is selected and versions of all files that can be changed into the new format produced you have to let people know. Any course reserve system will have a large proportion of legacy users that will be accustomed to your previous file format. They need to be informed of the change and pointed toward any free software that they might need to utilize the new format. The most obvious place to put this information is wherever your users access course reserve material. Instructors should also be notified while they are placing their orders, if not earlier.
Hopefully file formatting is not an issue that will have to be dealt with very often. In fact having to deal with it more than once a decade suggests that something is wrong. However keep in mind that if it becomes an issue that it will be complicated to deal with. Make sure that you understand the technology and the needs of your user groups before making the decision.