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Digital Magic Preservation for a New Era

Posted by Editor on March 13, 2012

By Matthew Kirschenbaum

You don’t get to play with a whole lot of cool tools or toys when you’re an English professor. Fountain pens and Moleskine notebooks maybe, or a book light or fancy e-reader. Bibliographers—those savants who analyze the unique physical characteristics of manuscripts and printed books—get the best stuff: illuminated magnifying glasses and book weights, white gloves and padded forceps, and more exotic assemblages, such as the original Hinman collator, a contraption the size of a refrigerator whose flashing lights were reportedly capable of inducing epileptic seizure. (Newer collators fold and collapse into a briefcase for transport to distant libraries, and while they may induce headaches, are seizure-free.)

But now that literary materials are often stored and accessible only in electronic formats—manuscript drafts written with word processors, e-mail correspondence buried in hard drives—we may be able to get our hands on some nifty techno-biblio accessories that make data retrieval easier.

One such device is the inelegantly named FC5025 floppy controller card, 1 1/4-by- 3 3/4 inches and silicon-wafer thin. If you grew up in the 1980s when I did, and if your first computer was an Apple, Commodore, Atari, or TRS “Trash” 80, the FC5025 (or one of several gizmos like it) is the link to whatever frail trellises of data may still remain magnetically etched on the surface of the antique “floppies” that went with those machines. One end of the device anchors an old-school gray ribbon cable that connects to an actual 5 1/4-inch drive, scrounged from eBay or a friend (I got mine from a supply closet). The other end holds the familiar, comforting shape of a USB terminus. Sandwiched in between, embedded in the FC5025 controller board, is the software necessary to bridge the gap between a wheezing, groaning disk drive and any modern operating system.

The FC5025 allows me to move data off my old floppy disks in the form of a so-called image file, a virtual simulacrum of the original diskette. With the disk image, I can extract individual files or run it through an “emulator” (more on this later), where I can examine individual bytes and verify that not a single one has been altered in the transition.

Digital preservation is the sort of problem we like to assume others are thinking about. Surely someone, somewhere, is on the job. And, in lots of ways, that is true. Dire warnings of an approaching “digital dark ages” appear periodically in the media: Comparisons are often made to the early years of cinema—roughly half of the films made before 1950 have been lost because of neglect. 

But the fact is that enormous resources—government, industry, and academic—are being marshaled to attack the problem. In the United States, for example, the Library of Congress has been proactive through its National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. Archivists of all stripes now routinely receive training in not only appraisal and conservation of digital materials but also metadata (documentation and description) and even digital forensics, through which we can stabilize and authenticate electronic records. (I now help teach such a course at the University of Virginia’s renowned Rare Book School.) Because of the skills of digital archivists, you can read former presidents’ e-mail messages and examine at Emory University Libraries a virtual recreation of Salman Rushdie’s first computer. Jason Scott’s Archive Team, meanwhile, working without institutional support, leaps into action to download and redistribute imperiled Web content.

But despite those heroic efforts, most individuals must still be their own digital caretakers. You and I must take responsibility for our own personal digital legacy. There are no drive-through windows (like the old photo kiosks) where you can drop off your old floppies and pick up fresh files a day or two later. What commercial services are available tend to assume data are being recovered from more recent technology (like hard drives), and these also can be prohibitively expensive for average consumers. (Organizations like the Library of Congress occasionally sponsor public-information sessions and workshops to teach people how to retrieve data from old machines, but those are obviously catch as catch can.)

Research shows that many of us just put our old disks, CD’s, and whatnot into shoeboxes and hope that if we need them again, we’ll figure out how to retrieve the data they contain when the time comes. (In fact, researchers such as Cathy Marshall, at Microsoft Research, have found that some people are not averse to data loss—that the mishaps of digital life provide arbitrary and not entirely unwelcome opportunities for starting over with clean slates.)

Sometimes, though, you really do want those bits back. That’s where the FC5025, and a little know-how, comes in….Read entire article here.

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