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Archiving paper, paper, and more paper, or not? Part 2

November 12, 2008


Continuing a thread from my previous post, I discovered a couple of other non-paper items in the Wellman Papers:  a cassette tape and 3.5 inch diskette. Both of these data formats in today’s world are pretty much obsolete.  This leads me to a question:  How do archivists address these materials especially if the institution does not have the equipment read the data from these forms of information storage?

The first thought that I popped in mind in relation to the diskette was, “Where on earth would I find a computer nowadays with a floppy disk drive?”  As we well know, computers and their users now employ external hard drives, flash drives, cd-roms, and dvd-roms to store their files. 

This thought, in turn, lead me to remember a computer I had used as an undergraduate that was still at my parents house, but I was not about to travel all the way to my parents home just to view the contents of the diskette!  In addition, even if I were to take up the task of traveling the distance, would the diskette be readable or had it degraded with time as computer storage devices often do with the passage of time?

This is when an archivist takes up the mantle of a detective or an archaeologist.  Using the context of the diskette, in this case the diskette was found in a manila envelope with a copy of a draft document.  I think it would be safe to infer that the diskette found with the draft copy contained an electronic copy of the paper draft.  The case for this argument seemed to be proven by the contents of the letter found with the draft and diskette.

In comparison, the cassette tape looked to be a remnant of the early 1980s.  The cassette brand did not match the name of any brand that I believe to still be available on the market.  I also had to think of the potential degradation of the magnetic tape found in the cassette.  This especially has to be considered when one doesn’t know where the plastic case containing the cassette had been stored prior to current home here at Biddle.  Had the box been stored properly in a temperature-controlled environment and stored in the appropriate boxes and folders?  It’s hard to say.  And unlikely, says Jordon.

Going back to the quandary I brought up before, how does one view the contents of these non-document materials especially if the equipment is not readily available?  When I put this question to Jordon he casually brought up a similar situation he had experienced.  Through online forums, he had asked the local archival community for a specific media player to play an old videotape, and had enlisted the help of another department at Penn for the equipment to read a corrupted diskette.  I thought both methods showed ingenuity and demonstrate a willingness between departments, organizations, and individual archivists to help each other in the fight against technological obsolescence.