The equipment goes, people retire, and suddenly the data’s inaccessible. It’s inaccessible because not only does the hardware cease to work, the people with the expertise get old and retire.
It’s not a new problem – it’s been known about for at least 10 years, but it’s an increasing problem.
For example, when I started at York in the mid 1980’s we had a room with various computers in it, all of which had different disk formats – even if they looked the same you couldn’t read a 3.5” Mac disk on an Apricot, or a PC. and much the same could be said for 5.25” floppy disks – some were single sided, some double sided, and some had decidedly weird sector maps.
Our solution at the time was to connect all the various machines to the university VAX cluster, and transfer files as binary items using the Kermit file transfer program, Kermit having the advantage of being truly multiplatform and error correcting, so that what was sent was the same as received.
We usually then converted word processor document to a standard format such as Wordstar, using a specialist software conversion tool such as word for word. (Word for word is long gone but many of its conversion filters live on in Libre Office. AbiWord also supports a range of exotic conversion filters such as TeX.)
Nowadays, we probably couldn’t provide such a service. The machines are either dead or in the case of York, donated to the Jim Austin computer collection, and we may no longer be able to read the media, or identify which machine wrote it – after all one 3.5” disk looks very much like another.
However, it’s also the death of expertiese. I am retired and what’s more live 20,000km away, and most of my colleagues who had anything to do with file conversion and equally retired and equally scattered if not quite so far away.
And this constitutes a problem. We’re getting older, perhaps forgetful, and not close to the hardware, and I’m sure there’s valuable data out there sitting on someone’s shelf in a box of old floppies …