852 RARE: Preserving Digital Media at HLS: First Steps

852 RARE: Preserving Digital Media at HLS: First Steps

Whether you’re familiar with archives or not, unless you work in one all day you might think of them as mysterious locked rooms full of old (dare I say, “dusty”) books with intricate bindings, manuscripts crafted hundreds of years ago in no-longer-spoken tongues and script, and artifacts once owned by famous people. HLS Library’s Historical and Special Collections does contain “treasures” like these but a much larger portion of our collection is made up of manuscripts that tell the stories of the lives of legal scholars, lawyers, and judges, regardless of fame or fortune. These items make long physical journeys from someone’s home or office through archivists’ hands, workspaces, and many other processes before finally being ready for access by our researchers.

But digital media has turned traditional archiving on its head. With formats and technology evolving much faster than the technology of papermaking and bookbinding, how do we preserve today’s records? Over the past 5 years, we have been building a program that will support the imminent inundation of digital records and allow us to be more nimble through new practices such as on-demand collecting. We already house an array of historic digital media, such as floppy disks, computers and laptops containing twenty or thirty-year-old hard drives, zip disks, files on CDs, and much more.

Image collage of media from a recent acquisition.

A few pieces of media from a recent acquisition. Clockwise, starting top left: HP Omnibook, 1997; La Cie external hard drive, 1994; HP OmniBook’s internal hard drive, 1997; Apple internal hard drive and its laptop computer, ca. 1994; IBM ThinkPad and its internal hard drive, 2004.

To preserve these, we use digital forensics techniques (yes, similar to what law enforcement units do in a criminal investigation!) to safely transfer files off of obsolete media and stabilize them on a secure server space managed by HLS ITS. We have an array of equipment to read the media, such as 3.5” floppy controllers and an UltraDock writeblocker that connects to over 10 different types of media such as internal hard drives and SD memory cards. We have a computer equipped with the Linux-based open-source BitCurator environment to extract metadata and perform many other activities on the disks we’ve stabilized. We recently added a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device Laptop (FRED-L) to our arsenal in anticipation of going out into the field and imaging media straight from donors’ offices or homes, without having to bring obsolete media into the archives at all (yes, I’m sorry to tell you, but that floppy disk is going to be unreadable someday whether you’ve got a working drive for it or not!).

FRED-L and UltraKit

FRED-L and UltraKit

But, all of this actually only solves the FIRST step of archiving – transferring files to the archive. A bit more complicated than going to an office to pick up boxes, but also pretty fun. We are currently working on the rest of the workflow – extracting files from stabilized disk images, migrating them to readable formats (WordPerfect for DOS, anyone?), and making them available through our finding aids in OASIS. I’ll be sharing more about these processes and milestones as we reach them, so come back to Et Seq for more digital preservation 852 Rare posts!

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