Passwords and Paper Printouts: Preserving the Electronic Records of the Devra Kleiman Papers

woman holding panda cub in forest with two people surrounding her, one petting the cub

In the course of my internship at the Smithsonian Archives’ Digital Services Division I’ve worked with myriad digital records, converting both new material and past accessions into formats that can be more easily preserved. But the most exciting part of my time here came when I was given my very own accession, the Devra G. Kleiman Papers, to work on. My task was to copy all of the digital data that came with her papers, prepare it for future research use, and generate a preservation copy for the archive.

photo of various media lined up on table.Dr. Kleiman, a conservation biologist for the National Zoological Park (NZP), was quite active in her field. Her career began in 1972, when she became the first female scientist at the Zoo and managed its captive breeding program. After Kleiman retired from the Zoo in 2001, she served as a Senior Scientist Emeritus, taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, and founded a zoological consulting company. Kleiman’s biggest research projects centered on the reintroduction of golden lion tamarins to their native habitat and the breeding of giant pandas in zoos across the world, though she was also involved in projects involving the conservation of many types of mammals (read more about her work and life in this previous post).

Kleiman’s papers, which came to the Archives after her death in 2010, include a wealth of information regarding her professional interests and activities, and have all the variety and complexity one might expect of a research scientist. Her electronic records are of particular interest because they span thirty years and preserve a temporal slice of the physical and electronic media types, application formats, and creation software commonly in use between 1980 and 2009. Kleiman used word-processing applications ranging from WordStar to WordPerfect to Microsoft Office 2003. She created databases and spreadsheets, stored digital photographs and scans, created presentations and posters, and used video files in a variety of formats. These records—more than 5,000 files—were stored on an assortment of media types, from 5.25” floppy disks to DVDs, and total over 10GB in size.

Accessioning these records was a fascinating process—every floppy or disc was a discovery. I never knew what I would encounter until I loaded it on my computer and read it—assuming I could actually scan the files. Because Kleiman’s professional records spanned three decades, her older materials are at a greater risk of format and hardware obsolescence and the general decay of magnetic media (known as “bit rot”). Additional risks include data encryption or password locks that prevent archivists from opening files. While I’ve run into all of these issues while working on Kleiman’s papers, they’ve offered an exciting opportunity to look at the accession holistically and hunt for clues in Kleiman’s corresponding paper records.

two floppy disks alongside paper with typewritten text

Kleiman was a prodigious note-taker—nearly every one of her discs has a label or note with some information about what’s on it. My favorite example:  a 3.5” floppy disk that was corrupted and on which most files could not be read. But after looking at the label and exploring the paper records that were in the same folder, I chanced upon a “Disk Directory” that listed what files were on the disk in question, as well as print outs of the WordStar and Lotus 123 files it contained. Though we can only assume that this inventory is accurate, at least we know what is likely to be on this disk, which may aid in efforts to read the disk in the future.

On that note, I implore you, Dear Reader, to consider your own electronic records. Do you know if your older data is still readable and accessible, or if others could make sense of it?  Below are a few links that can provide useful information about digital file creation and preservation steps you can take for your own data. The most effective way to ensure that your data remains useable is to stay informed about issues and trends in preservation, including best practices, format concerns, and obsolescence threats and take action when and while you still can.

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