Innovative solutions for dealing with born-digital content in obsolete forms – Part 1

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[Tweet] AB Schmuland: Obsolete media brings them in at 8 am EDT on a Saturday! #saa14 #s601

I chaired a lightning talk session at SAA 2014 in Washington DC on August 16. The premise was that many archives have received materials in forms that they cannot even read. Archives are acquiring born-digital content at increasing rates and it’s hard enough to keep up with current formats. It makes sense to reach out to the community for help with more obscure media. I found ten speakers who had confronted this problem and figured out innovative solutions to getting material into a form that could be more easily managed.

[Tweet] Jennifer Schaffner: “my name is ___ and I have born-digital on crazy old media that I can barely identify that I have no idea what to do with” #saa14 #s601

The speakers’ stories were so encouraging to others in similar situations that I wanted to share them further.

This is the first of three posts. We start with a talk about the array of media an archives might confront, followed by a talk about an effort to test how much can be done in house.

Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, the Electronic Records Archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives urged archivists to ingest materials off removable media as soon as possible — if possible. She itemized some of more typical physical media the SI Archives has and the workstations they maintain to access them. Then she told of some successes they’d had getting content off less typical forms, like Digital Audio Tapes, data tapes, interactive compact discs, and digital videocassettes.
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[Tweet] Kevin Schlottmann: National air and space website from 1994 recovered from tape in 2012 #s601 #saa14

Finally she cautioned about some of the media we may be overly confident about: CDs and DVDs – not just that drives to read them are no longer standard issue, but that their life spans can vary dramatically.
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She suggested looking to schools, eBay, craigslist, and listservs to obtain out of date equipment and considering whether another archives could help with your format. For formats that simply cannot be read, she raised the possibility of waiting until a researcher wants it and seeing if the researcher is willing to pay to have a vendor transfer the data.

Moryma Aydelott, Special Assistant to the Director of Preservation at the Library of Congress, described developing cross-division in-house workflows for processing 3 ½” and 5 ¼” floppy disks.
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The goal was to get a backup copy of the items stored on long term storage, while encouraging standard practices and increasing staff digital competencies. She described the software used (xcopy and FTK Imager) to get complete and unchanged copies of the content. Tabs that make the floppies read-only were used to prevent disks being accidentally overwritten during copying. After reading data off the disks, the workflow included steps to create checksums and other files using the BagIt specification, and for items to be inventoried as they’re saved to tape-based long term storage. The workflows were documented, staff was trained, and processes were customized to particular situations.

[Tweet] Sasha Griffin: Balance outsourcing with developing staff competences in-house #s601 #saa14

Curatorial divisions had been contemplating transferring data off of these media but were unsure how to start, and this project gave them some help and confidence to get going. Now the Preservation Reformatting Division is assembling a lab with scanners, portable drives, and a FRED machine. It will be available to staff in all LC curatorial divisions and those staff are helping to determine other hardware and software the lab should include. A committee has formed to develop scalable ways of processing materials that can’t be processed in house.

Next up: Part 2 will continue with four speakers talking about solutions to particularly challenging formats.