Old formats, new challenges: preservation in the digital world

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published November 13, 2015

Photo by Dino Osmic/Shutterstock image

METRO DETROIT — Floppy disks, videotapes and books all have one thing in common — without proper preservation, the materials are going to degrade and become useless.

Image files, text documents and other files typically found on computers, compact discs and old floppies may seem like they would be relatively easy to preserve compared to old books and photographs, but they come with their own challenges, according to University of Michigan Digital Preservation Librarian Lance Stuchell.

“(Digital preservation is) basically coming up with policies and procedures to address mostly the obsolescence that happens with digital content,” Stuchell said. “We know file formats die, we know operating systems and platforms die at some point, so how do we sustain this digital content through time?”

Media formats like floppy disks, CD-ROMs and DVDs all eventually fail, as will the hardware necessary to read them. But Stuchell said that is not the only issue that archivists need to deal with — there also is the problem of reading old file formats.

For example, he said that if someone has a file saved in a version of Microsoft Word from the 1990s — or some other proprietary format used by another program, like WordPerfect — it can be difficult to find a program able to open it properly on a modern system.

Stuchell said what archivists will do is try to convert that file to another, “open” format that they believe will be in use for some time into the future. No one company owns an open format, and coders can more easily make programs to open them properly. For example, that Word document could be converted to a PDF/A file.

“It’s well-documented, it’s an international standard, and there are lots of tools around creating PDF/A, so we would be probably more confident with PDF/A than some version of Word,” he said. “That’s always changing, and it’s up to Microsoft what they do with that format.”

These issues also extend to proprietary media formats. Stuchell said the university has old Apple Macintosh floppy drives that can only be read by other Apple equipment, so moving those files to a newer, open media format is challenging.

The University of Michigan also works on converting analog media — like audio and video recordings — to digital, and those also get saved in similar open formats, Stuchell said. 

Kim Schroeder, archival program coordinator at Wayne State University, said maintaining and gathering the necessary equipment to read old floppy disks, records and other outdated formats is a challenge in its own right. 

“It’s a huge challenge,” Schroeder said. “You have to have someone gifted in the technology. Sometimes you have someone who can make parts in their basement, or sometimes you can cannibalize parts from old drives that have broken.”

Another option is asking other universities and archiving programs for help. Wayne State’s program does belong to a cooperative volunteer organization that shares spare parts or working equipment where necessary, Schroeder said, so if something broke on, say, a specialized record player or floppy drive, they could see if anyone in the organization could help with parts or repair skills.

She said part of preserving digital files also involves trying to retain any original information on when they were last edited and saved, while being mindful not to overwrite the original file in the process of backing it up. 

“It’s not as easy as just copying it to a new software (system),” Schroeder said. “We try as best we can to retain the look and feel of the original save dates — when you save something to a new computer, the save date is today’s date, but that’s not really when it was last touched or saved, and we have to retain that for the history of the file.”

Wayne State is working with local museums and the Detroit Public Library to digitize and preserve materials. Stuchell said that while there are grants available to help private organizations — and universities — digitize materials, those grants do not typically cover the cost of maintaining and preserving files and data. 

“You might have a newspaper collection or collection of archives — personal papers — that is really of interest, and you can go out and get grant funding for that,” he said. “The thing about digital preservation is that it is by its nature ongoing, and it requires the management of content over time. Grants don’t fund that; the organization has to make some type of commitment.”

Schroeder said that organizations and individuals looking to preserve their digital files and photographs can find useful advice at the website www.digitalpreservation.gov, which is part of the Library of Congress. Aside from making sure file types don’t become obsolete, she said it is important to back up files in multiple places, ideally far apart in case disaster strikes one place.

The Library of Congress also suggests labeling each file with information on what it is and who is in it; always save the highest-quality versions possible; keep files in separate media formats — an external hard drive, a flash drive, a CD-ROM, online — and check them once a year to make sure they still open properly.

Stuchell said that analog magnetic media formats like VHS and audiocassettes are also at an ever-increasing risk of deterioration, especially those from the 1980s or 1990s, and should be digitized as soon as possible. Older film reels tend to remain in better shape for longer, he added.

For more information, Stuchell said people can contact the University of Michigan Library at contact-mlibrary@umich.edu.