The following is a guest post by Barry Wheeler, Digital Projects Coordinator, Office of Strategic Initiatives.
In a previous post I reviewed my process for end-of-the-year archiving of my picture and personal files onto two external hard disk drives. This year I went an extra step – I added all the files saved in my CD-ROM archive over the past 16 years to my external hard disk drive archive. This second step is the subject of this blog post – that is, facing the reality, on a personal level, of all the issues archivists have discussed for years.
The transfer of content from one digital media type to a different type is called “format conversion”, or simply “reformatting”, and is similar to microfilming books and paper materials. This process is critical in the digital world – can any of us in 2012 easily read content from the 8” and 5 ¼” floppy disks so common in the 1980s? And as I discovered, even though we still have the equipment to read CDs, other issues make the conversion necessary ASAP for those who want to archive their personal materials.
First, a stark summary – as a digital professional, I have 4 CD-ROM drives on MS Windows XP, MS Windows 7, Apple OSX 9.7 and Apple OSX 9.6. I have 62 CD-ROMs dating back to 1998. Of these CDs, one data disc looked OK but could not be read on any drive. Later I discovered a broken program disc. There were also two files (on different discs) that could not be read or copied, as well as 252 files that could be copied to the external archive drive but which were reported as “not readable.”
These results represent all the common problems of digital reformatting in general, and of CD-ROMs in particular. Interoperability was an issue for early generations of CD-ROMs , and I found that I needed 3 different CD-ROM drives to read my 62 discs. CD-ROM deterioration was another issue – particularly with inexpensive discs created on home machines. I could read all of my commercially created discs – all my “read” problems were on inexpensive discs I created myself. Unfortunately, I had not purchased any expensive gold “archival” CD discs – and I certainly should have used those.
The 252 files that were not readable represent the problems of proprietary software and software obsolescence. Several old video formats were not recognized but were readable when I manually associated the video file with newer video software. A multi-file interactive instructional lesson was not recognized – and I have yet to find a copy of the proprietary program used to create and play back the program.
What’s worse, my old federal income tax records from 1999 through 2006 were not readable! I did not have a software program on my computer that could recognize the proprietary file type used to store those records since I changed from one tax preparation program to another in 2007. To read the files I had to retrieve my original tax preparation program discs – a different program for each tax year and load them onto my computer. But I discovered the disc for one year was broken into pieces – the disk was stored in a standard 3-ring binder of standard CD-ROM sleeves. I don’t know how the disc was broken!
Luckily, when I loaded the 2006 tax preparation software version it was able to read all previous data. For now I’m retaining the program disks – sometime I’ll experiment to determine if I can copy the 2006 program CD of the tax preparation software, which was designed to run on Windows XP, to my external archive hard disks and then install the program to my current Windows 7 computer. In the meantime, I’ve created and saved, on my external disk archive, a simple text file that documents the problem and the location of the original program disk.
These challenges illustrate some common difficulties in retrieving older personal digital records. For a future blog post I’ll tackle “Step Three – cataloging the archive”.