After last week’s column about creating annual archives, one Loyal Reader wrote in with the following question:
Old codgers have old archives on old disks. I have disks and files going back into the 1980s. I have no computer that can read these disks. (Anyone have an operational Mac Classic that can read 256k disks?)
But even files from the late 90s sometimes come up with a “This file is unreadable” message.
What is a strategy for keeping your archives recoverable? Of course you could go back every few years and re-record them on up-to-date media. But that’s a lot of trouble compared to keeping a shoebox full of old photos under the bed for decades.
And even then, sometimes you get the “unreadable” message that brooks no appeal.
What does one do? What does your panel of gurus suggest?
Before the twentieth century, there were very few ways to record data, and they didn’t change often or quickly. These days, file formats and storage media become obsolete with breathtaking speed.
I’d love to hear suggestions and recommendations from readers, but I’ll tell you what I’ve always done, and that’s transfer my data onto new media once it became clear the old media were going to disappear—and sometimes just to save storage space.
For example, when I got a ZIP-100 drive back in the mid-1990s, I transferred a lot of things from floppy diskette onto ZIP disks. Some ten years later, when ZIP disks became obsolete (and my old ZIP drive started suffering the Click of Death), I transferred that data onto CDs. By that time, floppies were also nearing extinction, so anything I still had on floppy diskette also went onto CDs. Much of that data, if it’s important to me, is also on one or more external drives.
And speaking of floppy diskettes: I had some of those 256K Mac diskettes, myself. And my PowerBook 145B (the first and so far only Mac I owned) no longer hand a functioning floppy drive. However, I had a friend who had a PowerBook only a little newer than mine, and she was able to put the data on high-density floppies that my PC laptop could read. Those files, too, got copied onto CD.
A few of them did get corrupted and lost along the way; I just checked one file that now lives on my NAS drive and got a warning message from Microsoft Word that I’d never seen before, about opening files in earlier versions being prohibited by my registry settings. Curiously, I can open the file with WordPad, though the formatting is messed up. This is a reminder that if the files are important, it can be a good idea to re-save them as newer versions, or to keep a copy of the older version of the software with them.
That’s the strategy I have. It takes a bit of effort, but I’m not at all sure that I’d call it “a lot of trouble.” Trying to do it years after the time you should have does make it more trouble, of course. (It is possible to find people with functioning “antique” computers; Charles Lee at McTek in Berkeley is one of them.) If you no longer need the data that’s on the about-to-be obsolete media or in an about-to-be-unreadable file format, then don’t bother.
But let’s look at the ways used to preserve data prior to the era of computers. For centuries, the only way to produce even one copy of something was to write it by hand on papyrus, parchment, or clay. In the right conditions, papyrus lasts a long time, but most places don’t have the right conditions. Fired ceramic is pretty near indestructible (you can break it, but not dissolve it, and the glaze doesn’t fade), but not practical for long documents. Parchment, which is made from animal hide, is subject to various forms of rot. None of them is especially compact and easy to store, and all are limited in terms of the type of data they can contain.
Does anyone remember the Xerox commercial where the two monks are saved from their laborious work in the scriptorium by the photocopier? The ancient literature that remains to us today had to be painstakingly copied letter by letter (often by scribes who didn’t really understand what they were writing), again and again over the centuries. Not surprisingly, these scribes frequently made mistakes; part of the job of more modern scholars is comparing these early manuscripts and trying to decide which one is correct in cases where they disagree.
If you remember that commercial, you probably also remember re-typing things on a typewriter because you made a mistake. Then came typewriters with correction keys, and those with single-line displays and memories. For all of my high school and undergraduate years, I wrote out all my student essays—and three or four novels—by hand before typing them up on whatever the technology to hand was: “programmable” typewriters in my high school days, and the campus mainframe when I was in college. (Oh, yeah, and my 160-page undergraduate honors thesis, too. I used to post the empty pens on my dorm room door. You can imagine how popular I was with my hallmates.)
Due to my own oversight, I never collected a computer tape with that work; I have only paper copies of some of it. But then, the only thing I really need it for now is nostalgia. It’s true that it’s easier for a human to read the printout of that thesis than it would be for my HP Pavilion laptop to read the tapes they would have given me of the mainframe data if I’d gotten them before I left Providence.
If all you want to do is look at something occasionally yourself, you may just want to print it, and then try to keep the printout in a waterproof, fireproof location. I’ve got a bunch of handwritten journals in a metal filing cabinet downstairs. I haven’t looked at them for years, though I’m starting to be a bit curious (and to realize I no longer remember those years as clearly as I once did), so I might pull a few out. I can only hope that the paper hasn’t gone moldy and the ink faded. Mildew is a terrible book killer, but so is too much dry heat. And in this case there’s also handwriting to contend with. Unlike the monks in the scriptorium, I don’t write in a gorgeous calligraphic hand.
And then there are photos. My paternal grandmother gave me some family photos back in 2000 when I visited her. Many of the ones of her parents when they were young were in remarkable condition. The photos of my own childhood—from the early days of color photography—were almost all badly faded. I’ve been able to scan them and touch up the color some, but at the time they were taken, the only way to make new copies would be to have the negatives. Negatives are rather fragile things and need to be stored carefully. The negatives for these photos were long gone. The photos themselves might be faded almost to invisibility by the time I’m a great-aunt.
You’ll find that there are a lot of things you have no need or desire to keep beyond the time the IRS requires you to have them. But if there’s something you want preserved for posterity, make a point of transferring it onto new media whenever you see th
at the old media are on the way out.