Bones and Joints Get Older; Media Gets Unreadable

Back in about 1985, I was busy staying at home with my kids and working free-lance–writing, typesetting, designing books, etc. I recall laying out more than $3,000 for a Radio Shack daisy-wheel printer that would be able to print out some of the nicely laid-out things I produced for customers. I spent days learning how to use WordStar to get that printer to create bullets–I finally succeeded with a superscripted, bolded, period and, of course, every time I used it a lot, I broke another daisy wheel.

That printer was driven by a couple of early PCs which used 5 1/4-inch floppy drives. I began naming each new floppy that I used after planets, and then moons of planets. Eventually, I ran out of moons of the planets circling Sol and began using fictitious planets from the many science fiction novels and short stories I had read. By the time I got up to nearly 1,000 floppies I gave up and created a numbering system. I still have those floppies, but they’re (almost?) worse than useless. See, I still can’t make my mind up, and that’s what this column is about. Should I just throw them all out?

We’re remodeling our old (core was built in 1870) farm house and in moving things around for the son-in-law-to-be, who is doing the work for us, last week I came across a couple of large plastic storage boxes with all of those 5 1/4-inch floppies in them. I almost tossed them out. Not only has it been years since I have seen a drive on which I could read them, most of them were created in old, outdated software that ran on DOS, which I no longer have copies of anyway.

Then, I ran across another box where I have been storing all my 3.5-inch floppies and Zip discs. That box, of course, is the box that has old stuff in it that I have been planning – in my spare time – to move over onto one of my current computers’ hard drives. After a great deal of soul searching, I decided not to throw the first two boxes out, and added the third box to the collection. But, collection of what?

My wife says it’s a collection of junk. I am beginning to agree. Surely I will never, ever try to read the contents of those 5 1/4-inch discs, if only because there’s nothing on them I can usefully read with my current software configuration, even if I had the hardware. It was kind of cool thinking about moons and planets in light of the recent Titan landing and photos and the continuing discoveries of new planets around other stars, but that d'esn’t help me read those discs.

And, what about the 3.5-inch discs? Or the Zip discs? Probably everything on them is still readable, if I had the hardware. And I do have a little insertable floppy drive for my Dell Inspiron 8500 . . . somewhere. And they do contain some of the very earliest digital photographs that I took – several years’ worth, in fact. But . . . I am caught up in the same conundrum that I hassle the IT folks at my job about. I so often hear from some other staff: “There’s so much junk on the central server, why can’t people (meaning, mostly, Terry.) spend some time deleting all that stuff?”

I tell them, and have been telling them for years, that my time, which would have to be spent opening and looking at each file in order to make an intelligent decision, is too valuable to spend in that way. “Storage space is cheap, so just add some more disc space and leave my stuff alone!”

So, what do I do? I am certain that I am not going to spend several weekends dusting off floppies, putting them into a drive, opening the drive, and then waiting while the files copy over to a hard drive. Even my teenagers still at home are too affluent to accept pay for that kind of mind-numbing job. I sealed up those boxes with duct tape and put them into a closet that we are walling off. It’s our time capsule. Just like that mythical server that was dry walled into a corner and kept chugging away for a decade, they’re there if we need them.

What I really would like to access is an equivalent of those coin counting machines that you can find in department stores and grocery stores nowadays. I could just walk into Meijer and dump a plastic bag full of floppies and Zip discs into a hopper, put in twenty dollars, and wait for everything to be moved in some magical way onto a fresh DVD, which pops out into my hand with all the files on it – then compresses the discs into a little mass of plastic and metal awaiting the trip to the recycling center.

“If only,” I tell myself. “If only I could get those all onto a hard drive, then they would be accessible and useable forever.” Part of me is convinced that the new software like Picasa, which is doing an excellent job with my 26,000+ newer digital images, or the Google desktop search software which has gone from Beta introduction to the real world in a record five months, will let me organize and find everything. Maybe.

I know, in the dimmer, less conscious parts of my mind, that there will be future issues with software and file format compatibility, but surely the folks working on ePortfolios and with the concept of personal, private, lifetime, unlimited digital data storage will take care of those issues for me as life g'es along. Maybe.

However, even as we struggle with waves of changes in campus IT, from administrative computing to academic computing; from commercial ERP to open source; there are little piles – digital and physical – of old data and old media in the corners, and they’re getting bigger.

Help me out, please. I’m about to spend some time researching what folks are doing about permanent storage and retrieval for digital files – both on a personal level like my current issues and on an institutional level. If any of you readers out there can steer me to some of the folks and sites that are addressing those issues, I’d appreciate it. Just send a message to me at terry.calhoun@scup.org. Thanks! I will definitely report back what I learn.

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