by [Matthew] Farrell and Shira Peltzman
As cultural icons go, the floppy disk continues to persist in the contemporary information technology landscape. Though digital storage has moved beyond the 80 KB – 1.44 MB storage capacity of the floppy disk, its image is often shorthand for the concept of saving one’s work (to wit: Microsoft Word 2016 still uses an icon of a 3.5″ floppy disk to indicate save in its user interface). Likewise, floppy disks make up a sizable portion of many archival collections, in number of objects if not storage footprint. If a creator of personal papers or institutional records maintained their work in electronic form in the 1980s or 1990s, chances are high that these are stored on floppy disks. But the persistent image of the ubiquitous floppy disk conceals a long list of challenges that come into play as archivists attempt to capture their data.
For starters, we often grossly underestimate the extent to which the technology was in active development during its heyday. One would be forgiven the assumption that there existed only a small number of floppy disk formats: namely 5.25″ and 3.5″, plus their 8″ forebears. But within each of these sizes there existed myriad variations of density and encoding, all of which complicate the archivist’s task now that these disks have entered our stacks. This is to say nothing of the hardware: 8″ and 5.25″ drives and standard controller boards are no longer made, and the only 3.5″ drive currently manufactured is a USB-enabled device capable only of reading disks with the more recent encoding methods storing file systems compatible with the host computer. And, of course, none of the above accounts for media stability over time for obsolete carriers.
Enter KryoFlux, a floppy disk controller board first made available in 2009. KryoFlux is very powerful, allowing users of contemporary Windows, Mac, and Linux machines to interface with legacy floppy drives via a USB port. The KryoFlux does not attempt to mount a floppy disk’s file system to the host computer, granting two chief affordances: users can acquire data (a) independent of their host computer’s file system, and (b) without necessarily knowing the particulars of the disk in question. The latter is particularly useful when attempting to analyze less stable media.
Despite the powerful utility of KryoFlux, uptake among archives and digital preservation programs has been hampered by a lack of accessible documentation and training resources. The official documentation and user forums assume a level of technical knowledge largely absent from traditional archival training. Following several informal conversations at Stanford University’s Born-Digital Archives eXchange events in 2015 and 2016, as well as discussions at various events hosted by the BitCurator Consortium, we formed a working group that included archivists and archival studies students from Emory University, the University of California Los Angeles, Yale University, Duke University, and the University of Texas at Austin to create user-friendly documentation aimed specifically at archivists.
Development of The Archivists Guide to KryoFlux began in 2016, with a draft released on Google Docs in Spring 2017. The working group invited feedback over a 6-month comment period and were gratified to receive a wide range of comments and questions from the community. Informed by this incredible feedback, a revised version of the Guide is now hosted in GitHub and available for anyone to use, though the use cases described are generally those encountered by archivists working with born-digital collections in institutional and manuscript repositories.
The Guide is written in two parts. “Part One: Getting Started” provides practical guidance on how to set-up and begin using the KryoFlux and aims to be as inclusive and user-friendly as possible. It includes instructions for running KryoFlux using both Mac and Windows operating systems. Instructions for running KryoFlux using Linux are also provided, allowing repositories that use BitCurator (an Ubuntu-based open-source suite of digital archives tools) to incorporate the KryoFlux into their workflows.
“Part Two: In Depth” examines KryoFlux features and floppy disk technology in more detail. This section introduces the variety of floppy disk encoding formats and provides guidance as to how KryoFlux users can identify them. Readers can also find information about working with 40-track floppy disks. Part Two covers KryoFlux-specific output too, including log files and KryoFlux stream files, and suggests ways in which archivists might make use of these files to support digital preservation best practices. Short case studies documenting the experiences of archivists at other institutions are also included here, providing real-life examples of KryoFlux in action.
As with any technology, the KryoFlux hardware and software will undergo updates and changes in the future which will, if we are not careful, have an effect on the currency of the Guide. In an attempt to address this possibility, the working group have chosen to host the guide as a public GitHub repository. This platform supports versioning and allows for easy collaboration between members of the working group. Perhaps most importantly, GitHub supports the integration of community-driven contributions, including revisions, corrections, and updates. We have established a process for soliciting and reviewing additional contributions and corrections (short answer: submit a pull request via GitHub!), and will annually review the membership of an ongoing working group responsible for monitoring this work to ensure that the Guide remains actively maintained for as long as humanly possible.
On this year’s World Digital Preservation Day, the Digital Preservation Coalition presented The Archivist’s Guide to KryoFlux with the 2018 Digital Preservation Award for Teaching and Communications. It was truly an honor to be recognized alongside the other very worthy finalists, and a cherry-on-top for what we hope will remain a valuable resource for years to come.
Shira Peltzman is the Digital Archivist for the UCLA Library where she leads a preservation program for Library Special Collections’ born-digital material. Shira received her M.A. in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and was a member of the inaugural cohort of the National Digital Stewardship Residency in New York (NDSR-NY).