Floppy Disks are Dead, Long Live Floppy Disks

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.

8 inch floppy disk, by wlef70, on Flickr

8 inch floppy disk, by wlef70, on Flickr

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.

Old Computer Shop Sign, by Max Wolfe, on Flickr

Old Computer Shop Sign, by Max Wolfe, on Flickr

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

13 Comments

  1. Stuart Moses
    April 11, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article. I keep several old computers in working order just to read ancient floppy disks. Interestingly, the 5.25″ disks, although older, are more robust than the newer 3.5″ ones.

    By the way, the hyperlink in the sentence, “The University of Chicago Libraries, for example, wrote about efforts (PDF) to review “about 1,000″ floppy disks for preservation.” is broken. I copied the link, then submitted the portion “umich.edu/~kfear/floppydiskpreservation.pdf” to Google, which yielded the selection “[PDF] Floppy Disk Preservation at the University of Chicago”

    The link to the PDF is long, but it works. Here it is:

    http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CCgQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww-personal.umich.edu%2F~kfear%2Falaposter.pdf&ei=4_GFT5_6BcagiQK86LHiDQ&usg=AFQjCNE8qYEvtFQsK6lAxhLndWWxVt0whg&sig2=_ZT9th2rLFpr_JpxQN15PA

  2. Kateroo58
    April 11, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    The revolution is analogue!

  3. Bill LeFurgy
    April 12, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Stuart, thanks very much for your comment and the issue with the link, which is now fixed.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  4. Susan McClure
    April 12, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks Bill for making us feel like we’re not so far behind in dealing with our back-log of floppies – and for an opportunity to ask for help…

    We’ve struggled to find a fixity checker that will generate checksums on floppy drives\media that are write-protected. Most want to write the checksum to the same location as the checked files, but of course, we don’t want to change the original media. Some tools will write to another location, which has worked for CD and DVD drives, but not for the floppy disk drives we’re using. Any suggestions?

  5. Colleen Theisen
    April 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    I tried for years to find someone to help me get my data off my old Commodore PET disks. I even had the computer and the disk drives, just no cords! When I did finally find people to help me it was from unexpected channels. I couldn’t find anyone in the collections I asked around the country who could help me but I found fans who could. The first person was through the Facebook fan page for the Commodore PET and the second person was through a Craig’s list ad I posted on a whim asking for help. I agree about the 5.25″ floppies being more robust than expected. They looked terrible from living in garages and basements along the way, but she had more than 90% success rate!

  6. Bill LeFurgy
    April 12, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Susan: Thanks for your comment. We’re discouraged from naming individual tools, but the UK Digital Preservation Coalition has a web page that talks about this issue: http://www.dpconline.org/advice/faqs/589-faq-simple-checksum-software. It mentions that checksums can be written to a thumb drive or other media. Hope this helps!

  7. Bill LeFurgy
    April 12, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Colleen: You are quite right to point out the fine work of fans and enthusiasts in this area. They have done fabulous work in supporting older equipment and in preserving older files, video games, etc. Their contributions will loom even larger as time passes!

  8. Mark Smith
    April 13, 2012 at 3:47 am

    My interest at the moment is in exactly the opposite of this article’s subject! I would like to know how to destroy some floppy disks in a way that neither harms the environment nor leaves the data in a recoverable state. Anyone got any ideas?

  9. Bill LeFurgy
    April 13, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Mark: Very interesting question. I believe there are services for this–anybody got have some recommendations?

  10. Nicholas Taylor
    April 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    @Mark Smith: to render the data irrecoverable, you can remove the floppy disk housing, then either cut up the disk with a pair of scissors or feed it through a conventional office shredder (i.e., after having removed the metal hub in the center). If you want additional security, you can format the disk using a secure erase program before physically destroying it. Once dismantled, you can recycle all of the pieces either through your local city or county’s household hazardous waste program or any number of commercial recycling services that you can find online. Many shredding and document disposal companies also offer media destruction services, but I’m not sure how ecological these are.

  11. Matthew Kirschenbaum
    April 18, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    I’ll continue to maintain, just informally, for kicks, with no data, that the bit-rot threat is overblown. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of 80s era floppies I’ve been unable to read, and have taken no special precautions with them.

  12. Geoffrey Brown
    May 4, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    The chicago link suggests copying the files to another media. This is often the wrong thing to do. What needs to be preserved is a disk image which retains all of the original metadata including the disk label. Making disk images in a Linux environment is easy — assuming the disk is good — using the program dd. Floppy disk images can be mounted in Linux and OS X or in virtual machines (e.g. VMware, etc) quite easily.

    The flaw with copying the files is that some times they depend upon the volume metadata and often upon the directory structure.

  13. Richard Carlson
    February 26, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Is there anyone in Cincinnati that can put the contents from A 5.25 floppy onto something I can read, like a DVD, etc. It is about 26 years old and has some graphics I’d like to print off.

    Thanks,

    Dick Carlson in College Hill, Cincinnati

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.