They lie in wait, silent sentinels from the era when personal computing first burst into our lives. Their secrets are inscrutable to the human eye. Often they have lived for years–decades even–under rough conditions that challenge their fundamentally delicate constitutions.
Floppy disks are both a bane and a blessing to digital preservationists. The blessing part centers on their potential for providing digital details from the past, especially from the period before widespread use of the internet to disseminate information. Depending on who used them for what they might contain significant literary manuscripts, rare data sets, revealing presentations or perhaps important family information. In any event, it’s quite possible that whatever is on a floppy is unique.
Bane comes into the picture for just about everything else. Disks may not, for example, have labels or any other clear way to identify their origin or their content. A box of unidentified disks is about as human understandable as a box of rocks. Determining what is on the disks requires very specific computer hardware that likely went obsolete years ago. You’ll need a specialty disk drive with a specialty controller that may or may not work with a modern computer. For that purpose you may need to acquire something like a Catweasel (the computer device, as distinct from the children’s TV show or the pro-wrestler). Or you might have to buy some vintage computer hardware and hope it still works.
The crux of the matter comes down to how good a job a disk has done in retaining the bits entrusted to it. Often the results are unhappy. As one writer notes, “if you still have boxes of floppies sitting in your attic or basement or grandparents’ place or wherever else, I’m telling you the days of it being a semi-dependable storehouse are over.” That’s because the disks are fragile constructions that were never designed for permanence. The Florida Division of Library and Information Services describes how the binder glue that is used to hold magnetic particles on a disk can be easily damaged from high levels of heat and humidity. “It can become soft and sticky, or it can become quite brittle… brittle binder flakes off the plastic base, taking the magnetic particles (and thus the information recorded on the particles) with it.” In other words, disks can and do fail with alarming regularity.
Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to extract information from floppies. The University of Chicago Libraries, for example, wrote about efforts (PDF) to review “about 1,000″ floppy disks for preservation. Archives New Zealand and the University of Freiburg describe a data recovery project involving “a set of 5.25 inch floppy disks from the early 1990s that contained records of a public organization dating back to the mid 1980s.”
Working with floppies is part of digital forensics, a field of growing interest. One such project is Bitcurator, which aims to “create and analyze systems for archivists, librarians and other information professionals to incorporate digital forensics methods.” We have written several posts on this topic, including Digital Forensics and Digital Preservation and Bit By Bit: Recent Projects on Digital Forensics for Collecting Institutions.
It will take some time for archives, libraries and museums to work their way through all the floppy disks they now hold, as well as the quantities they are likely to receive in the future. Dead though floppy technology is, we are left hoping that individual disks keep on living.
Broken link fixed, 4/12/2012