Store important older files on new digital formats

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue #650  April 9- 15, 2002 High Tech Office column

How long do you need to keep your data?

When I recently sent in my 2001 tax return, I noticed fine print suggesting that I hold on to all the paperwork for at least six years, just in case. I suppose that means that I'll also need to hang on to my copy of QuickTax or TaxWiz 2002 until 2008 or longer.

Information can have a longer lifespan than we might have predicted.

I've posted most of the articles I've written over the past decade on to my personal Web site, and surprisingly, I'm receiving a steady stream of e-mails about things I wrote nine or 10 years ago.

Physical data can have a long lifespan, though librarians tell us that books and other printed matter often deteriorate faster than we might think. Accessing older digital data brings its own set of problems.

Some problems are physical. Storage formats have evolved over the past few decades from reel-to-reel tape to floppy disks to CD and DVD.

I have programs and documents stored on the once-common, five-inch floppy diskettes, and have always added one of these old-style drives into one of my computers. 

My newest PC desktop, however, only supports one floppy drive, so I'm out of luck. I really need to copy these disks over to the smaller diskettes (or CD) as soon as possible.

And when I do, I shouldn't be surprised if some of the disks are simply unreadable. Floppy disks, like magnetic tape, can simply go bad over time. The dyes used in recordable CD disks may not last as long as most of us assume.

Even if the data is physically readable, we may find it difficult to make sense of it.

Fashions in software change, and the word processor you're using now may not be able to read the documents you saved a decade ago. The latest Microsoft Word can read old Word Perfect 5.1 documents, but not documents made with the slightly older Word Perfect 4.2 or the even older (but popular in its time) WordStar, to say nothing of documents created on non-PC computer systems. (Hint: Dataviz products Conversions Plus for PC and MacLink Plus include converters for a wide range of file formats, both new and archaic.)

Michel Daoust had a different problem. He wanted to reuse a series of documents he had made with older, DOS-based word processors. He could open them in Word, but the boxes he had made around the text appeared as a series of foreign-language characters instead of lines. The reason? Line-drawing characters were included in DOS typefaces. 

Since Windows (and Macs) can draw lines directly on screen, they are no longer needed, and were replaced in newer fonts with accented letters.

At one time, Microsoft included a special font to solve just this problem. Even if you can find a copy of the old Microsoft LineDraw font, it no longer works. Word's help suggests a time-consuming manual method to replace each character making up the boxes.

More efficiently, Lotus issued a similar font, included with its former word processor Ami Pro. That font still works, even with the newest version of Word. Luckily, I still had a copy of that software, and the disks still worked.

The moral?

Don't let your files, disks, tapes, and CDs sit on the shelf year after year.

It's a pain, but you should periodically check them out, making sure they can still be read. And at the same time, transfer them to your current storage medium and file format. Only by doing that will you be able to ensure that when you do need them you'll be able to read them. 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan