Markdown – an archival standard for digital documents?

Software developers are constantly improving the apps we use to manage our research and document the history of our families. These advances have given us many useful tools to make our efforts easier. There is still one major area of concern – how to manage our archives of digital documents. As word processing applications have come and gone, many of us have been left with documents we can no longer view. One format, however, has survived since the very beginnings of the digital age – plain text. Unfortunately, plain text is exactly that – plain. There are no font choices and you can’t include even the simplest of formatting functions like bold or italic text. Who wants to be stuck with that?

Fortunately, some smart people have come up with an option that will allow us to have archival quality text files – and have them with style! It’s called Markdown. Markdown is actually two things. First, it’s a standard that uses certain plain text characters – like asterisks and hyphens – to represent format settings. Second, it’s a conversion program that will read the plain text file with these formatting “codes” and convert them into other document formats like rich text, HTML, PDF or even Word. Here are some examples:

Hello *world*. In this example, the asterisks tell a markdown conversion app to italicize everything between them.

Hello **world**. Two asterisks will convert to bolded text.

# Introduction. The single hash mark at the beginning of a line will identify that line as a level-1 heading. A level-2 heading would begin with two hash marks and so on.

Even without conversion, plain text that includes Markdown coding is still quite readable. It’s much easier to read than the same text with equivalent HTML tags. It’s the simplicity and readability of Markdown that make it so interesting. Forty years from now, even if Markdown gets forgotten over the decades, someone can open and read the plain text document that includes Markdown code much easier than we can read this WordPerfect document that’s less than 20 years old.

A letter created in an old version of WordPerfect.

No, you don’t have to dump your current apps, but now that you know what Markdown is you can start looking for apps that support it. One type of application where archiving would be important is journaling and Mac/iOS users will find Day One [Mac – $9.99 & iOS – $4.99] saves your journal entries – and all your formatting – as Markdown text. Also for Mac/iOS users is Byword [Mac – $9.99 and iOS – $4.99], an elegantly simple text editor that supports both Markdown and rich text. The Draft [Android – $2.99] text editor for Android tablet and phone users provides Markdown support. A number of note-taking apps for Mac are also getting updates to include Markdown support. VoodooPad 5 [Mac – $39.99 and iOS – $9.99] is a good example. And, because its native document format is Markdown, the app can easily convert your notes to rich text, Word, PDF, HTML and ePub formats. I only found one Windows app – WriteMonkey – which supports Markdown, but hopefully we’ll soon see others.

Byword editor example

Here you see Markdown text in the Byword text editor for Mac.

This example shows what Markdown looks like while editing. As you can see the text is quite readable. Once the document is ready to publish, the editor includes functions to save it in the format of your choice (rich text, HTML, PDF, etc.) – with the Markdown codes converted to the appropriate formatting. As technology moves forward, all that’s needed to update this app – or any of the older documents created using it – are functions to support converting to whatever new format has been developed.

Thanks to Markdown, the future of plain text looks quite bright. And, by supporting the efforts of developers who incorporate Markdown in their applications, we can help influence its acceptance and continued growth. Helping them will help us find an archival standard for digital documents that will insure the future of our research and publishing efforts doesn’t get left behind in the trash bin of old technology.