Look around the closets and storerooms of any business, and you’ll see old writable CDs and DVDs, floppy disks and zip disks. Perhaps even some magnetic-tape cartridges or cassettes.
Maybe there’s nothing important on those old digital formats, but how would you know? And if there is something worth preserving, how would migrate the data to a modern platform?
A new Harvard Gazette article sheds light on ways organizations are working to preserve digital content. It focuses on the efforts of archivists at Harvard University’s libraries, who are tasked with reviewing and preserving content existing on obsolete or soon-to-be obsolete digital formats.
Library staff are using digital forensics–the techniques and tools typically used by crime investigators to capture and preserve information from any device capable of storing digital data.
The technicians have access to old hardware–floppy disk drives and zip drives, for example–to copy data to a more stable platform before digging in to see what it may contain. This step involves the use of a “writeblocker,” a device attached to the drive that creates a copy–known as a disk image–while preventing any data overwriting the source disk.
Of course, the pros use an impressive machine called a FRED (Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device), a tower system that includes just about any digital drive that an investigator would need. Harvard has several FREDs for use in their libraries.
The next step involves migration, or converting the captured files to an acceptable modern format for viewing. For example, old Corel WordPerfect files from the 1990s may need to be converted to Adobe PDFs.
There is a variety of digital preservation software available to do this. One platform created by the National Archives of Australia includes XENA, which can convert hundreds of old file formats to today’s standards-based open formats. XENA and the entire digital preservation software platform is free and open source and available at this link.