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Obsolete data formats

Filed under: archive operations,audio,computer/data,history,video — 2011-11-22 by Richard L. Hess — Last Edit 2011-11-23 by Richard L. Hess

This is a reminder that data formats come and go just like audio and video formats. On this, the 48th anniversary of the JFK assassination, this article was posted at the Library of Congress website. It talks about first locating and then converting research data held on IBM 80-column punch cards. I remember working with those my first summer job back in 1967! I guess I have a penchant for obsolete formats, as I learned a good deal about IBM’s unit record equipment, including the amazing 407 (introduced in 1949). That certainly was not as useful as knowing about analog tape now.

The punch cards were found and converted. This is a much happier fate than that suffered by the original IRIG 14-track 1-inch tapes of the Apollo Moon Walk from 1969! I am currently digitizing 14-track 1-inch seismic tapes surrounding the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980.

Many analog and digital formats are becoming harder to recover. David Crosthwait at DC Video lists many at-risk video formats that he can transfer. I was contacted today by someone wondering if I knew where to transfer QIC DC-600A data tapes. I said I did, and sent him to Chris Mueller who can transfer many formats including most QIC formats.

The point is, however, I don’t know how much longer all of this equipment will be workable. Ten years is pretty much a certainty. Fifty years is a very long time. Please, search your archives now for obsolete formats that still need to be converted. There are people who can still recover content from a wide variety of formats, but we and our equipment are all aging, as the Library of Congress pointed out. They had to repair the punch card readers before the Kennedy data could be captured. It’s getting more and more common to hear: if you want me to recover that data, first I have to restore the old player.

I have given up maintaining an 8-track cassette playback machine as the call wasn’t there. I sold it to another restorer, so let’s hope he will bring it back to life. Little by little, the less-widely used formats will fade away. My first 7-track 1/2-inch IRIG tape recovery in 2006 came to me after a long search in North America and Europe with no success. At that point, I did not own any real IRIG machines (I now own several). I used a modified audio recorder and a 1/4-inch 4-track instrumentation machine for the FM demodulation. So there are not many people capable of playing IRIG instrumentation tapes. I don’t think there are too many people able to recover 9-track data tapes.

Please, before it’s too late, bring your data into the 21st century. Be prepared to be told at some point in the future “it’s too late–no one can do it”. Another piece of luck was finding some old tape machines in someone’s garage for the recovery of the Lunar Orbiter images. They were almost lost. There are so many formats and all of them require dedicated hardware to recover the data.

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