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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I found my floppy disks at the archives

Do you remember the first computer you ever used? Do you have a stack of old floppy disks sitting in a closet collecting dust? Do you have old computers sitting in a room that you rarely enter that you wonder what to do with? You are not the only person confronting these problems of technological obsolescence. As more digital toys are used in our daily lives, the problem of storing these digitally created materials becomes ever more pervasive. Think about it on a personal level: How will you make sure all those pictures on your phone or digital camera will survive for your children and grandchildren? When you reminisce about the way things used to be, will you be sitting down with photo albums or gathering around an electronic picture viewer and slide show? What happens if the software you used to create those pictures is not available anymore? How many computers will you even go through between now and then?

Unlike their paper counterparts, digital materials do not last long if put in a closet and forgotten about for many years. The rate of technology is increasing at warp speed; the computer that was the latest and greatest yesterday is old and obsolete tomorrow. And the number of software applications that create these digital files is enormous. Versions of the Microsoft Office suite come out every few years, and the WordPerfect and WordStar word processors of the past are now archaic trivia items to talk about at cocktail parties. How does an archivist keep up with the digital revolution to preserve our digitally created cultural materials?

Archives and archivists all over the world are working to answer these questions, including the National Anthropological Archives (NAA). The NAA has just begun the long and arduous process of archiving born-digital materials (materials that were created digitally and not scanned from a paper or analog medium). There are policy issues that need to be addressed, access issues, ownership rights and copyright issues, and of course technological issues surrounding the preservation and use of born-digital materials. The NAA has begun the process of creating an environment to preserve born-digital items so that they will be available for years in the future.

The first step in preserving these born-digital materials is inventorying the items that you have. This is where your old closet comes in. Archives have been collecting born-digital items in the form of 3.50 inch and 5.25 inch floppy disks and other magnetic disks for at least thirty years or more, and these materials have been languishing in archival closets for quite a while now. The trick is finding them in the sea of paper items that also live in the archives. Anthropologists often wrote books on word processors or recorded interviews for future reference. The box of floppy disks pictured above is only part of the collection of digital media in the Kaja Finkler papers. How do we access these files?

The second step in capturing these electronic records is to set up an environment in the digital world to do so. One example of this is the Unix Operating System environment, which has tools to capture digital information in other operating systems. It is also flexible, developed by many people, has freely available software, and can manipulate files from different operating systems without altering the files.

The third step is to try to find the hardware and software combination that will read these external media. When was the last time you saw a VHS player or floppy disk drive? Digital archivists need to find the right combination of hardware and software to even access the external media (e.g. the floppy disk) and display the contents to the user.

After finding a hardware and software combination that can read the material, the fourth step is to retrieve the data off the disk without altering the data in any way. A disk image will capture everything on the disk in an exact copy, so that the media itself does not have to be handled later. The archives can then manipulate the files in the disk image and not have to go back to the disk itself to access the files contained within. You can also make multiple copies of the disk image for preservation, just like the backup copies you make (or should make) of the files on your computer.

Finally, the files need to be viewed and processed to determine their significance to the collections and the overall mission of the archives. Additional software investigation is needed to figure out how to view the files. Even though the software was available to view the contents of the disk, other software applications will be needed to open the files and/or convert the contents of the files into a format that can be viewed with today’s operating systems. All this just to view the contents of an old floppy disk!

Born digital materials continue to be accessioned (acquired) by archives at an ever increasing rate, and the NAA hopes to continue its work in developing a technological infrastructure to process born-digital materials and formulate policies and procedures that will facilitate access and ongoing preservation of these materials. The digital revolution has changed the way we all work and live, and our cultural materials need to reflect this change as well.

-Karen Ballinger, Intern, National Anthropological Archives

Karen Ballinger was a summer 2010 NAA Digital Lab intern, focusing on the NAA born-digital collection and external media disk imaging. She is currently a student at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information, pursuing a master’s degree focusing on digital archiving and preservation.

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