Monday, January 9, 2012

Floppy Diskography

Recently three researchers sought access to the contents of 3.5-inch floppy disks in three archival collections at Hoover. You might think that responding to these requests is routine, but, after activating the write-protection tab and scanning for viruses, the process can take many turns.

Three disks in the Roger Mansell collection were labeled as containing the unpublished memoir of Robert Bjoring, a prisoner of war in the Philippines during World War II. A number of the files on the three disks had the same file name and were the same size, a common occurrence when files are repeatedly backed up. For each file we always generate a checksum, a digital "fingerprint" that serves as a unique identifier. By comparing the checksums of all the files, we were able to confirm the existence of duplicate copies and eliminate the duplicates, saving time for researchers using the files and conserving space in our storage system.

The papers of A. L. Adamishin, a Soviet and Russian diplomat, contained eleven disks with dates written on the labels. We were able to open ten of them; the last one was corrupted and unreadable. Once we viewed the contents (diaries for 1990 and 1991), we found that they matched up to paper diaries in the collection. Evidently, someone printed out the contents of the disks and placed both the printouts and the disks in the boxes shipped to Hoover. Given the many hundreds--perhaps thousands--of computer media in our archival collections, we decided that the paper printouts were sufficient for research and preservation purposes and ceased work on the digital files.

The thirty-two disks in the David Fowler collection proved to be the most exotic. The curator who acquired the collection was told that the disks contained newswire stories, a rather vague description. The few disks with labels were handwritten in an incomprehensible scrawl. Our standard software could not read the disks and reported that they had not been formatted. We are still hoping to recover at least some data from the disks by using specialized software running in a Linux environment, which requires more staff time. Who knows what we'll find?

After activating the write-protection tab (at the tip of the pencil), files on the disk cannot be altered or deleted.