Consider the Floppy: Exploring Access Issues with the Volz & Associates, Inc. Collection

A black 3.5 inch floppy disk with a label reading "RJA:"
A floppy disk from the Volz & Associates, Inc. collection.

Hello! This is Abbie Norris, back with an update on the born-digital Volz & Associates, Inc. collection. For those who haven’t read my previous blog post, I am the digital archives Graduate Research Assistant at the Alexander Architectural Archives. I’m currently working on the Volz & Associates, Inc. collection, which documents the work of a historic preservation firm based in Austin, Texas.

When I published my previous post, the collection was in the midst of being processed. I’m happy to report that processing for this collection is complete – all 813 floppy disks, CDs, zip disks, and flash drives of it. Processing is one of the first major stages of getting a collection from the donor to the public. It’s when the bulk of archival preservation happens. In this case, as in many born-digital collections, “processing” involved imaging (essentially, copying) the disks, capturing metadata like disk size and file types, and recording everything for documentation in the finding aid. We’re now able to determine the size of the collection, the types of files, and what we need to provide access to them.

One of the things I love about born-digital archiving is the problems that arise that require creative solutions. This is especially true for an archive’s pilot born-digital collection, as is the case for Volz. Items like CDs and floppy disks degrade at a faster rate than paper materials, meaning that sometimes you try to open a disk that physically appears fine, and it won’t show any of your files. One major question people have is, “If all of the information is stored on a CD, why do you have to copy the contents in a disk image? Why can’t you just continue opening the CD to access the contents?” Luckily, the answer is simple.

Imagine you have a 13th century codex and a 1990s floppy disk. Which one is easier for you to read? With the codex, all you have to do is open it. It will be fragile and you might not know the language in which it’s written, but much of the information held in the book will be visible to you. Now, consider the floppy disk. When was the last time you used one? Does your computer still have a floppy disk drive? More than likely, the answer is, “No.” Even if it does, think about the files on that disk. Can you still open a WordPerfect document from 1992?

Given that the Volz collection dates between 1980 and 2009, the types of files present on the disk vary widely. Some, like .txt and .tif files, are still widely accessible and are projected to remain active filetypes in the future. Others, like .jpeg, are still accessible but are not recommended for preservation because of their lower quality and the potential for their use to cease. Finally, there are the files that you try to open with modern software…and nothing works. These files can be either old versions of proprietary software and discontinued software.

This is where creative solutions come in. There are a variety of tools, many borrowed from the criminal forensics world, that allows us to look at files from twenty years ago. Because the digital archive field is still developing and many of the projects use open access tools, the software an archive uses to read and provide access to old files can resemble a patchwork quilt. Now that I know exactly what types of files are in the collection, I love exploring access solutions and finding answers to questions that have persisted since I began working here.

In many ways, finishing processing feels like finishing the first segment of a relay race. I feel accomplished for finishing a major task, but there is still a long way to go. Now that processing is complete, we have to finish writing the finding aid and establish methods for researchers to access the collection. It’s going to be an exciting few months, so check back here to learn about what providing access to a born-digital collection looks like at the Alexander Architectural Archives.