Format rot in ebook preservation

Monday, November 5th 2012

Electronic text is hard to preserve. This might seem counter-intuitive – isn’t it trivially easy to make backup copies? Yes, but accessing those copies is another matter.

I’ve been cleaning out the darker recesses of my office lately, digging through things accumulated by previous occupants back to the mid 80s. I knew I was playing host to a large quantity of floppy discs (both 3.5″ and 5.25″), but this is the first time I looked at what’s actually on them.

I found seven ebooks (the labels call some “Hypercard novels”) in that pile of 3.5″ floppies. Most were published by a company called Eastgate. Eastgate still sells copies of these titles ebooks to this day, but I’m not clear how they’re supposed to be read.

I’ve run into 4 barriers in trying to read these ebooks:

  1. They’re on floppy disks. Floppy drives are a dying breed. Luckily these are 3.5″ disks, because if they’d been 5.25″ I wouldn’t have access to the right-sized drive. Still, in another five years any floppy drive at all will be considered specialized legacy equipment.
  2. The disks are mac-only. No PC that I’ve found has been able to read them.
  3. Even on modern macs, they can’t be read. I haven’t had time to fully figure out why, but some preliminary research pointed out that they might be a special kind of floppy disk that only older mac drives can read. Modern ones won’t work.
  4. Even if I had the right kind of drive – what software will they need to be read? I have no idea, but I’d bet money that it’s nothing still in common use today.

Like I said Eastgate still exists, and sells copies of these ebooks. They were evidently were migrated to CD-ROM at some point. But even with those more modern copies, the Eastgate website says some of their titles require Hypercard to be read. Hypercard was mac-only software, and stopped working with current versions of OSX in 2005. And even if I was somehow able to get Hypercard to run, I’d still be forced to re-buy the content on CD-ROM.

I have no idea if these ebooks are any good, or hold any value at all beyond being curiosities of early ebook publishing. I’m not going to put any more effort into getting them running unless I’m given a compelling reason. But this is a real issue, and one that will only become more important in time. I think of the huge quantities of CD & DVD resources we still have at work, and I shudder a bit. Apple removed the CD-ROM drive from the latest imac, and other manufacturers can’t be far behind.

If anything, this experience has drilled into my head that I need to keep an eye out for mission critical resources on old formats. I’ll migrate them forward when I can, but that won’t always be possible. I’m bullish on ebooks in general, but when it comes to preservation paper still wins.

Side note: Here’s a list of the titles I have on floppy. Maybe these are crucially important to someone else. If you’ve got the means, I’ve got the media:

  • Ambulance: An Electronic Novel, by Monica Moran
  • King of Space – by Sarah Smith
  • The Perfect Couple – by Clark Humphrey
  • Quibbling – by Carolyn Guyer
  • Afternoon, a Story – by Joyce Michael
  • Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse – by John McDald
  • Its name was Penelope – by Judy Malloy (this disk appears to be signed)

05. November 2012 by Chad Haefele
Categories: eBooks, Libraries/Info Sci, Tech | 2 comments

Comments (2)

  1. Re: Mac floppy drives … early Mac floppies were variable speed, whereas later floppy drives were like the Windows 3.5″ floppy drive hardware. You’d probably have good success on a 68k Mac with an original floppy drive.

  2. Thanks Henry! That matches the little bit of info I’d found too. I’m not quite motivated enough to track a 68k Mac, but it’s good to know I’m not doing something wrong on a more modern machine at least.

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