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Digital Preservation and the 1963 Kennedy Assassination Study

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Events associated with the Kennedy assassination offer a compelling case study regarding obsolete data formats and digital preservation.

Kennedy cor 04, by Luiz Fernando / Sonia Maria, on Flickr
Kennedy cor 04, by Luiz Fernando / Sonia Maria, on Flickr

Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy on this day 48 years ago, an organization turned to the latest computer technology in an effort to study the tragedy.  From November 26 through December 3, 1963, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago conducted a survey of citizen reactions to the event.  The results were recorded on paper punch cards, which were used to input data into the mainframe computer used to tabulate study data.  Summary results were then published and time moved on.

When another national catastrophe stuck on September 11, 2001, NORC researchers acted to replicate the 1963 study by asking the same kind of questions to assess public reaction. The aim was to compare how the nation responded to two very different tragedies.  This in turn raised the question: where was the original Kennedy assassination data set?  NORC had some summary printouts and tapes, but the complete data–the punch cards–were unaccounted for.  Without the cards, researchers could not make the most meaningful comparisons.  NORC archivists set out on a hunt for the elusive data, and after reviewing old indices to thousands of boxes in a private storage facility, the original punch card decks were found.

Celebration had to wait.  NORC had stopped using punch cards a quarter of a century earlier and had to arrange for a third party to convert the Kennedy cards to a format that current computers could read.   A facility in New York could do the work, but not without causing some anxiety.  There was only one copy of the cards, which meant there was no room for error, either in getting the cards to the facility or in processing them.  Nerves spiked when the facility reported they “had to refurb our punched card equipment, it had been sitting around so long it got a little rusty.”

In the end, all worked well and the data set was successfully migrated to a modern data format.

Punch Cards!, by DanCentury, on Flickr
Punch Cards!, by DanCentury, on Flickr

While this particular foray into data archeology had a happy ending, it illustrates the hurdles that time and obsolescence can present to keeping digital data alive and useful.

Ideally, the original Kennedy assassination data set should have been continually moved forward to new generations of media and file formats.  Not doing so left the data set at the mercy of a distant and rusty mechanical relic.

I’m happy to say that this perspective was amplified and highlighted through the NDIIPP-supported Data-PASS project, a voluntary partnership of organizations created to archive, catalog and preserve data used for social science research.

Comments (5)

  1. An illustrative and therefore very useful example of the need not for just datafying our cognitive and human experiences but also for insuring it’s availablity a few technological twists up the road.

  2. there are quite a few of the obsolete technologies like cassette tapes that private vendors can and do convert to digital format. There will likely always be businesses that covert reel-to-reel, 8 track, CD and DVD to newer technologies.
    The less common ones like punch cards—that would be different and unlikely to be available for conversion to modern media formats..

  3. I wonder if we should sometimes be prepared to put our thinking caps on in relation to this kind of issue. For instance, even without the existence of the rusty machine, it should be possible to read the data.

    Some ancient fogies like me were once accustomed to read punched cards by holding them up to the light. This was really just a “rough check” to identify specific card types etc, and I’m not suggesting it as a method of recovering masses of information. However, taing even low resolution images of the cards and processing these images should surely be possible…

  4. And so the story goes… a comprehensive digital preservation strategy should be a part of every organization deemed to produce data/information perceived to be important now and in the foreseeable future.

    @Albert: with the amount of data produced currently, do you think that there will be organizations that will be able to convert say CDs to newer technologies 500 years from now 😉

    A lesson to take away from this –as the author stated– is that migration should be a continual process; of course coupled with standardization when preserving data.

  5. Albert, consider two inch videotape. Once the standard for the industry, it seems reasonable to think that someone would offer a conversion service. Finding a machine at this point is almost impossible.

    Chris, at one point the National Archives had a collection of punch cards. They weren’t sure what to do with this ‘newfangled’ format, so they microfilmed them. Some years later, the images were scanned and then could be processed to read the punches.

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