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Caring for Brooklyn’s Digital History

By Maggie Schreiner

Posted on November 8, 2019

Erica López, BHS Digital Preservation Fellow, writes about the joys and challenges of preserving legacy media.

We experience, understand and interact with Brooklyn’s rich history in so many different shapes and forms. At Brooklyn Historical Society’s Othmer Library, this history is documented in manuscripts, photographs, moving images, oral histories and artifacts. In today’s increasingly digital world, our history can also be found on floppy disks, CDs, hard drives, and smart phones. Digital materials are at risk for a number of reasons, but the biggest risk is obsolescence. For instance, we haven’t had computer drives for floppy disks for many years, and very soon it will be the same for CDs and DVDs. Archivists are thinking about the digital past and the necessary steps to access and preserve what these digital objects can tell us about people’s experiences. We refer to these materials as “born-digital;” in other words, materials that were originally created in an electronic format. This includes material on floppy disks or zip drives, and anything created on your computer that is accessed and saved on its hard drive.

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Digital photograph of exhibition at Space for Art and Industry, 2012, Matthew Lewandowski jewelry dies and papers, 2012.018, Digital file; Brooklyn Historical Society.

For the past five months, I have worked as Brooklyn Historical Society’s Digital Preservation Fellow, leading a project to assess all born-digital materials currently held in the archives, and create workflows for future donations. With the help of Maggie Schreiner, Manager of Archives and Special Collections, I started with resources and information that BHS staff had compiled, including deciding on the software and hardware for the project. The workstation is a desktop that is not on BHS’s server, so we wouldn’t risk infecting BHS’s computer infrastructure with a potential (historic!) virus. The workstation also includes a “write-blocker” and various external drives: one for 3.5 inch floppy disks, two memory card readers, a zip-drive and a CD-drive. The write-blocker sits in-between the computer and your born-digital object (i.e. floppy disk, CD or DVD). The write-blocker prevents the computer from altering any data on the object.

The workstation and accompanying software (we’re using BitCurator) allows us to create “disk images” of each digital item. A disk image is essentially a snapshot of all the content on a drive. The disk image allows us to access the files themselves, the file structure, and additional information such as when the file was created and when it was last modified. At the beginning of the project, I thought “why not just make a copy and paste the files? Why go through the very time-consuming and technical process to disk-image a floppy disk, when I could easily just make a copy?” There are many reasons. The biggest is that we risk losing the integrity of the files. For example, if a disk-image was created from an external hard-drive, and the files were just copied and pasted to our computers, then, we would end with many unorganized files. Maintaining the original file structure is like maintaining the page number to a book. Without the page number, all you have is many pages and an incoherent story. The file structure is similar: we are able to view how the creator organized their work. Additionally, by disk-imaging, we are able to collect valuable metadata. For example, we can easily scan a disk-image file for sensitive material, such as credit card numbers and social security numbers. Even more so, we can scan a disk-image for viruses.

Digital photograph of Purim costumes, 2011, Melanie Einzig Purim Photography, 2011.018, Digital file, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The workstation and accompanying software (we’re using BitCurator) allows us to create “disk images” of each digital item. A disk image is essentially a snapshot of all the content on a drive. The disk image allows us to access the files themselves, the file structure, and additional information such as when the file was created and when it was last modified. At the beginning of the project, I thought “why not just make a copy and paste the files? Why go through the very time-consuming and technical process to disk-image a floppy disk, when I could easily just make a copy?” There are many reasons. The biggest is that we risk losing the integrity of the files. For example, if a disk-image was created from an external hard-drive, and the files were just copied and pasted to our computers, then, we would end with many unorganized files. Maintaining the original file structure is like maintaining the page number to a book. Without the page number, all you have is many pages and an incoherent story. The file structure is similar: we are able to view how the creator organized their work. Additionally, by disk-imaging, we are able to collect valuable metadata. For example, we can easily scan a disk-image file for sensitive material, such as credit card numbers and social security numbers. Even more so, we can scan a disk-image for viruses.

Digital photograph of the Gowanus neighborhood, 2009, Jackie Weisberg’s Gowanus Impressions, 2011.008, Digital file, Brooklyn Historical Society.

At the end of the project, I ended up with 17 collections that contained born-digital material, with a total of 87 born-digital objects (twelve 3.5 inch floppy disks, thirty-eight DVDs, and thirty-seven CDs). These disks contained a total of 77 different file formats. The digital files represent a part of Brooklyn’s culture that are now on their way of being preserved and made accessible to the public. From photos of a Jewish Purim celebration, to a text document describing the beauty and uniqueness of the Brownstones, to the school plays of Packer Collegiate Institute, these digital files reveal how digital technology and people’s experiences are connected.

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