Nova Scotia

The 21st-century archivist's dilemma: How to preserve those floppy disk files?

Just like a physical crime scene, digital forensic investigators try not to disrupt the evidence they find on computers. And archivists have that same concern when they're trying to preserve digital material.

Dalhousie trying special computer to archive info that must be transferred but not altered

Creighton Barrett says in many ways, archiving digital materials is far more complicated than preserving traditional records. (Blair Sanderson/CBC)

If you've ever had problems converting a digital document from one format to another, you know what Creighton Barrett goes through every day.

As Dalhousie University's digital archivist he's responsible for incoming material that's not on paper — and that means ever-changing technology.

Meet FRED: a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device. It can "clone" entire hard drives without altering any of the original formatting. (Stanford University)

"You get floppy disks inserted into boxes, maybe thumb drives, CDs, the formats change," said Barrett. "And then all of a sudden we start getting computers and large external hard drives." 

Archivists call this "born-digital" material. And preserving some of the older formats is a challenge.

"If you don't do something right now, eventually the data will disappear. The disk becomes corrupt. It doesn't have the longevity that paper does."

Forensic investigators leading the way

The obvious solution would be to copy the data onto newer and longer-lasting formats.

But archivists are picky. They don't want to lose anything from the original, which can easily happen when transferring files.

Private investigation company Digital Forensics Corp. is shown at work on digital evidence. (Digital Forensics Corp.)

"Your computer is likely going to do things like change the date stamp on the file; it will alter the file properties, and that information is important for researchers."

Barrett is now experimenting with a new computer called FRED, or Forensic Evidence Recovery Device. It's similar to what police use when handling digital evidence in suspected crimes. And just like a physical crime scene, Barrett says, police must ensure data seized from computers hasn't been altered. Otherwise there's no clear "chain of custody" for evidence.

"In archives we call it 'custodial history,'" Said Barrett. "We need to be able to show in a hundred years, here's the history of the acquisition of this information, here's the history of it being created."

Barrett says many archivists around the world who deal with new digital material coming into their collections are using similar technologies. 

How does it work?

The FRED computer has about a dozen different ports that can accept all kinds of formats you can't find on newer computers. And technology called write-blocking allows investigators to essentially clone original material without altering it in anyway. That allows them to examine the clone without the risk of corrupting the source files.

Daryl Rowland, with the private investigation company Digital Forensics Corp, said it's important to know, for instance, what order information was put on a computer. That can be essential for investigators and archivists alike to understand the story the information tells. 

Employees at Digital Forensics Corp "clone" source material before they investigate what it is. (Digital Forensics Corp)

"It's really like a filing cabinet so, rather than getting the files within a cabinet, you're taking a picture of the entire cabinet so you understand the structure."

And while he's not an archivist himself, Rowland sympathizes with their predicament. 

"Never really before in the history of human activity has there been that danger," he said. "You can't alter a fossil record or whatever artifacts there have been, and now we have this very flimsy way that our culture is being stored."


Blair Sanderson is an award-winning nationally syndicated current affairs reporter for CBC Radio. He's based in Halifax, where he's worked for 10 years. Contact