Students present more work at the Archive

Last year, readers may recall two graduate student groups from the School of Information here at the University of Texas at Austin tackled the problem of archiving digital records from the George Sanger Papers.  With the passing of a year and the accumulation of more materials for the Videogame Archive, four student groups from the same course grappled with born-digital documentation from George Sanger, Warren Spector, and Heather Kelley.

On May 8 these hard-working students wrapped up their course work by giving presentations.

The first group presented their work on documentation related to George “The Fat Man” Sanger’s audio for Advanced Tactical Fighters and Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo.  They were confronted with 4 different media types: 3.5” floppy disks, ZIP disks, DAT tapes, and the dreaded ADAT tapes.  Within these media, they found the Fat Man’s predilection for using different file formats for one project, running across .SND files, .WAVs, .MIDIs, .SYXs, .XMIs, .KRZs (specific to the Kurzweil K2000 synthesizer), .ARRs, as well as other text and graphic files.  The group used the New Zealand Metadata Extractor (http://meta-extractor.sourceforge.net/) to extract the appropriate metadata from the files, and in the end ingested, from media such as this, nearly 2,000 files into the school’s digital repository. The students’ work will ensure that researchers can reliably trace Team Fat’s compositional progress through both of these jobs.

The second group found themselves faced with eighteen 5.25” floppy disks from Warren Spector’s days at Steve Jackson Games and TSR.  The students recounted their difficulties locating the machines that created the content on Spector’s disks: a Kaypro IV and an Apple IIc.  After searching high and low, they were introduced to the folks at the Goodwill Computer Museum (http://www.goodwillcomputermuseum.org/), and from there the project became smoother.  For example, once they gained access to the disks’ contents, they discovered the disks primarily contained text files, which Spector created for TOONand his TSR-era novels The Hollow Earth Affair and One Thing After Another.  But they also ran across correspondence, such as this message (prophetically appropriate to the group’s travails) to Bruce Heard on October 15, 1986:

“I have a new word processor that is causing lots of problems… lack of headers, page numbers and other standard elements of professional submissions.”

Screenshot of a Kaypro IV directory, listing the files available on a 5.25" disk labeled "TOON". Spector (Warren) Papers, UT Videogame Archive.
Screenshot of a Kaypro IV directory, listing the files available on a 5.25" disk labeled "TOON". Spector (Warren) Papers, UT Videogame Archive.

Gaining access to the files was one thing. Next they had to transfer the files to more stable media, which proved challenging with the Kaypro IV, a machine with very little networking capability. It did have a null modem cable, and, using Kermit software (www.columbia.edu/kermit/), the group (with critical help and advice from the Computer Museum staff) successfully migrated the data from the floppy disks to the digital repository.

The third group may have started out with most uninteresting project, but once they saw what they had, the project quickly became the most glamorous of the four. Their project began with just one CD labeled “Ion Storm E-mail, 2004”, which proved to have 3 .PST files within it. .PST files, you may recall, are the output through which Microsoft Outlook exports its email messages. So, one CD with three files on it, all of it totaling a little over 2 gigabytes. Big deal? Yes! Once the group opened the .PST files in Outlook 2003 (the program version that originally exported them), they discovered the email within dated from 1997-2004 and included over 56,000 emails and 6,374 attachments! And they further realized, while going through the email, that anyone interested in the history of Ion Storm (especially the Austin office) would need to consult this resource. And if one wanted to know about Toby Maguire’s request for a Thief: Deadly Shadows walk-through, well, one could learn that too.

The final group that presented that morning worked on 7 JAZ disks from the Heather Kelley Papers. The JAZ disks (http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/dpm/dpm-eng/oldmedia/pages/jazdisk.html), made by Iomega (the company that made ZIP disks) dated from Kelley’s work on Redbeard Pirate’s Quest, a “smart toy” that, as the toy’s packaging puts it, makes “your every move magically come to life on your computer.” Redbeard, or ARGH, the toy’s development code name, was released in 1999 to critical acclaim and disappointing commercial results. The archive had fortunately acquired a JAZ drive before the project, but the students still needed to locate a SCSI adapter that would connect the JAZ drive to the ports available on a contemporary computer. Once they did so, they were able to migrate 8,136 files from the JAZ disks which covered the range of Redbeard’s development, including the toy’s complete source code, Open Media Toolkit files and utilities, images, and sound. Since many of these files constituted uncompiled source code, utilities, and assets of one kind or another, the group spent a considerable amount of time making sense of it all, even interviewing Kelley (who was producer for the toy) and the lead programmer Chris Spears. The students’ project documentation will go a long way towards making these Redbeard files accessible to researchers interested in smart toys and human-computer interaction.

Thanks to all twelve of the students who helped preserve these archival records this semester, and made them infinitely more accessible in the process.