Digital Forensics, Obsolete Formats, and the Harvard Library
Libraries and archives at Harvard hold thousands of unique items across hundreds of digital formats, including aging technology such as CDs, floppy disks, tapes, and cassettes. To retrieve content prior to total obsolescence or decay of digital formats, librarians are using digital forensic software commonly employed by the police or the FBI to solve crimes, which enables them to identify content noninvasively and migrate it to a more stable platform.
“People outside of the field hadn’t anticipated how quickly this would become such a pressing issue,” said Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, University archivist. “It happened practically overnight.”
“We certainly have that issue of these hidden problems riddled throughout the collections,” Sniffin-Marinoff said. “I don’t think people were imagining the extent of the implications. It’s added a layer of complexity to our work that’s pretty unbelievable.”
Harvard’s first collection to be preserved via digital forensics was at the Business School’s Baker Library. One recent acquisition left librarians pondering how to capture the significant portion of born-digital information and integrate it with the print items in the collection.
“Our collections range from the Medici family to Lehman Brothers,” said Rachel Wise, Harvard Business School archivist in Baker Library’s Historical Collections, who started the digital forensics program. To get more specialized knowledge for the recent acquisitions, officials hired a consultant and worked with other institutions to learn about essential tools and workflows. Since acquiring their initial digital collection, the program has grown to include discs from new collections such as the Wang Laboratories Inc. records and faculty research collections.