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My Floppy Died
and I don't feel so good myself

Susan Ives, a past president of Alamo PC, leaves the genealogy in her family to her brother. He posts the family data at www.konschak.org

John has a picture of his great-great grandmother. When she died in 1929 she was one of the oldest residents of Fredericksburg, Texas, so we know the photo is at least 72 years old. 

When Johnís mother turned 80 this past July I took dozens of snapshots with my digital camera. What will her great-great grandchildren have in the year 2074 to remember this occasion by? In an ideal world, they will be able to print fresh digital photos of breathtaking clarity. In reality, they may inherit a pitted and scarred CD that contains mystery files that no contemporary computer is capable of reading. 

Take the example of my friend Phil. He wanted to look at the file containing his masterís thesis. It was on a 5 ¼Ē DOS-formatted floppy disk. Oops. He doesnít have that computer any more. And what was it typed in? WordStar? Ami Pro? After a few weeks spent finding a compatible machine, he discovered that the disk was damaged. His experience is unfortunately typical: Damaged disk. Extinct operating system. Defunct software. Obsolete medium. And all that happened to him in the space of about five years. 

Archival librarians have long been wrestling with the implications of storing important historical documents on digital media. As genealogists, you face the same problem on a more intimate scale. Will your electronic family histories stand the test of time? The truth is, we donít know. 

Electronic archivists face two hurdles. First is the stability of the media themselves. 

How long will a floppy disk last? A CD-R? A zip disk? Hard drive? Tests by the National Media Lab show that the best quality CD-ROMs stored under ideal conditions are expected to last from between 50 and 100 years. Most zip drive owners have experienced the ďclick of death,Ē signaling last throes of a damaged disk or drive. 

Floppy disks are not certified for long-term archival storage, which is defined as more than three years. If your records are stored on floppies:

  • Never allow anything to touch the magnetic surfaces of a disk. A fingerprint will leave an oil residue and tiny scratches that cause permanent damage.
  • Always store 5.25" floppy disks in their disk jacket, and avoid squishing them together in overloaded diskette boxes.
  • Avoid high humidity environments and choose a location at room temperature, which is free from fumes, dust and vibration. 
  • Avoid leaving disks in high heat, such as parked cars or mail boxes. 
  • With 5.25" floppy disks, fill out the label before attaching it to the disk. If the label is attached, use a felt tipped pen. Avoid using liquid paper on disk labels, as loose particles can cause surface scratches. Paper clips can cause magnetic corruption, or come loose and wiggle their way into the disk jacket.
  • Floppy disks are rated for temperatures within the range 10 to 45°C. Continual temperature fluctuations should also be avoided.
  • Magnets can destroy data. Sources of magnetic fields include battery chargers and power packs, electric clocks, computer monitors, modems, printers, computer speakers, telephones, radios, electric typewriters, magnetized hand tools and keys.
  • Disk drives collect dust and foreign matter, which can cause surface scratches on disks. Clean them. 

These tips will serve you well for almost any medium. Keep your digital archives at a stable temperature and humidity, handle them at a minimum, keep them clean, donít shove them into dirty drives, donít moosh them together and keep them away from magnets.

To add another level of insurance, keep all of your important records in duplicate in case a disk or tape fails. Even better, keep them stored in two different media, for example, on a zip drive and on a CD-ROM. 

Archivists sometimes ďrefreshĒ their media. Every year or two, pull out all your archived material and copy them onto fresh disks. And, even though it might not be apparent to the naked eye, technology does improve. Modern floppies have better anti-static shielding. Newer CD-Rs are less vulnerable to corrosion. 

After archiving your data, check out the new disk to make sure it works. Quickly check to make sure the old and new disk contain the same number of bytes, but also open a few files to make sure they are not corrupted.

Although these arenít physical problems, make sure that your disks are clearly labeled so that you do not accidentally overwrite them. Label them for future generations so that your descendants will know that they contain important genealogical documents and donít sell them off in a yard sale. And make sure you virus-check your material! 

Another solution is to print your material. Be wary. Ink jet printed materials can deteriorate, too. I have had the ink lift right off documents that were stored in non-archival quality plastic document protectors. At best, ink jet printed photographs are predicted to last one generation, 20-26 years, if printed using highest quality photo inks on best quality matte photo paper. Worst case is less than one year before deterioration sets in. Consider sending a sampler of your best digital images to a professional photo lab like PC Alamode advertiser River City Silver. They use a different printing process that can make your digital prints last as long as those made from 35mm film.

Finally, consider storing a complete digital archive in another location, such as a safe deposit box or a distant family memberís house. If you do suffer a catastrophe, such as fire or flood, your family history will be protected.

You’ve done your best to physically safeguard your disks, but that’s just half the problem. The other challenge you face is technological obsolescence. Think back on Phil’s master’s thesis. It was stored on a 5 ¼” floppy. Do you have one on your current computer? Probably not. Some new computers that come bundled with CD-ROM burners do not include floppy drives at all. There are many new storage technologies hitting the market, such as flash memory, smart cards, Orbs, Jaz, LS-120, Read-Write DVD, magneto-optical drives and pocket hard drives that plug into a USB port. Will these technologies still exist 50 or 100 years from now? Probably not.

One solution is to ďmigrateĒ your archives to new media every time you upgrade or replace your computer. If youíre like most people, thatís every 18 months to 3 years. 

Pause for a moment and pay attention to the newest computers and how they are configured. If you notice a trend, such as new systems shipping without floppy drives, itís probably time to consider a different archival medium. Your floppies, zip disks, or whatever could be ready for the great computer museum in the sky. This is also the time to inventory every archival disk you own to make sure it survives the migration. 

Also consider remote file storage. World Wide Web sites such as FreeDrive and Yahoo Communities allow you to store files, for free, on a remote server. This is not a long-term solution. Will these sites still exist 50 or 100 years from now? Probably not. But they can get you over a hump. You probably have some free Web space thrown in with your Internet account Ė in some cases, as much as 100MB of storage. Your ISP can tell you how to upload, or FTP, your files to this space for remote storage. Storing files on the Internet bypasses the entire issue of selecting viable storage media.

As insurance, consider having an old-style drive installed on your new system, just in case an errant disk didnít make the conversion. A local PC builder can even transfer your old drive to a new computer. I kept putting 5 ¼í drives on my new systems long after I stopped using those disks for storage, on the off chance I might stumble across a critical document that didnít migrate to the new medium.

If your descendants can put your disk into their computerís drive (assuming there are computers, disks and drives in the next century) the next hurdle they have to face is the operating system. Remember, Philís disk was formatted for DOS. My old grad school papers were typed using a KayPro 4, which used the CP/M operating system. Will Windows 98, ME or XP be running 50 years from now? Probably not. Microsoft introduced Windows 3.1 in 1992, the same year IBM debuted OS/2. ĎNuf said. Try reading an OS/2 disk today.

The easiest time to migrate your storage media to a new operating system is when both the old and the new system are alive and kicking. Translating floppies from DOS to Windows was fairly easy in 1994. Today, it’s a major project. You can figure that software companies upgrade their operating systems on an average of every 18 months, and kill off support to the OS introduced two changes ago. That means, at a minimum, you need to take a close look at your operating system every four years or so to make sure you don’t get stuck with an orphaned OS. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.

Archivists sometimes “pickle,” or preserve, old computers. This is a last resort, usually reserved for unique and rare operating systems. It’s not just a matter of stuffing an old computer in a closet. Batteries can corrode or die, which could involve reconfiguring a system or having to boot from a disk. Other mechanical things can go blooey when you're not looking. If there is a way to migrate your files to a current operating system, do it. 

Iíve save the best for last. You may be using genealogy software, such as Family Tree Maker. You are probably using a word processing program. Maybe a database and spreadsheet. Graphics and photo-enhancement software? Page layout software, such as Microsoft Publisher. Presentation software such as Powerpoint. Face it. None of this will be for sale at CompUSA 100 years from now. 

To get around this hurdle, keep a copy of your software in the same place you keep your archived files. Include the disks, manual, passwords, and everything else you need to crank up the program.

And I mean all of your software! John has a copy of Sierra Generations Family Tree Grand Suite. In addition to the basic genealogy software, the configuration process asks you to point to your word processing program, your Internet browser, and makes use of Zip compression to create archives across multiple floppies. Save the font files that you might have used in word processing documents. Times New Roman may not survive into the next century! Save your graphics program. If you gather genealogical information from e-mail and news groups, save your mail and news reader programs.

Continue to migrate your data to new software. Your old DOS program may work just fine for you today but you wonít be able to run the program if you canít get a DOS machine. Ten years from now Windows 98 users will be in the same boat. Although itís troublesome, in the long run it pays to keep your software current. Donít fall more than a version or two behind. 

Make sure that the disks are well marked, to include the program needed to access them. You could do this on each disk but it would also be a kindness to make a master list of all the file formats you use and the programs needed to open them. Your great-great granddaughter might not realize that .wpd is a WordPerfect document or that she needs WinZip to decompress a zip file. 

Experts recommend saving a copy of your files in the least-processed file format. Each program has its own native format. For example, Family Tree Maker for Windows has a file extension of .FTW. These files can only be opened in that program. Most genealogy programs also allow you to save as a GEDCOM file and as ASCII comma delimited text. GEDCOM files often lose some of their integrity when imported into other programs. ASCII text can be opened in any word processor, database or spreadsheet. Save your files in both of these formats. Odds are both will survive into the next century. Text files can be saved as ASCII text. Cut and paste important e-mails, newsgroup postings and Web-based data into Wordpad and save them in ASCII format. 

Save photographs in the uncompressed TIFF file format. At the very least, save stand-alone copies of your photos rather than integrating them into another program such as your genealogy, word processing or presentation software. Integrating photos with another program will force your descendants to grapple with two file formats instead of one, decreasing their chances of success.

Overwhelmed? Youíre not the only one. The U.S. government almost lost the 1960 census data when they couldnít find a computer to run custom-built software. The resulting kerfuffle sparked the current interest in digital archiving. You can benefit from the mistakes others have made. Refresh your media. Migrate your software. Think ahead 100 years. Children yet unborn will thank you.

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