A ragtag bunch of computer misfits

Remember Claris Works? WordStar? 5 ¼ inch floppy disks?

Chances are you don’t use these much anymore, but at the National Library, these are just some of the things you might find in the work area we call the Digital Object Workbench (DOW).

The DOW is a collection of vintage computers that the library has been collecting for the last decade. They have a wide variety of hardware and software capabilities and each machine offers different applications and tools.

An assortment of the types of physical media we work with every day.An assortment of the types of physical media we work with every day.

Our aim is for the machines to provide us with good coverage across the most commonly used applications over the past two decades. We are particularly interested in being able to run different kinds of word processing programs. There are a variety of operating systems running and media drives that can handle most types of disks.

How are they used?

The library actively collects and preserves manuscripts, publications, music, oral histories, cartoons and photographs in a variety of formats, one of which is digital.

Digital collections come to the library on floppy disks, hard drives and CD/DVDs. They are technically assessed and then appraised for content.

Because of the variety in both type and age range of the physical media, we need to make sure we have the right device on hand to read the media we receive. For example, we are regularly offered double density disks, a particularly troublesome type of 3 ½ inch floppy disk commonly used in early 1990s.

In order to get at the potentially rich files stored on them, we need to have a drive that is able to read them. For this particular kind of disk, we rely on a Mac Performa 580CD computer, which has a built-in disk drive capable of reading double density disks.

Our Mac Performa 580CD computer, used primarily to read 3 1/2 inch double density floppy disks.Our Mac Performa 580CD computer, used primarily to read 3 1/2 inch double density floppy disks.

The DOW is also used for digital preservation research. Seeing a file in its original application and operating system can be invaluable when you are trying to figure out how it was originally meant to be experienced. The knowledge you gain interacting with a file in its original state might help you to decide on the most appropriate preservation path for files of its type as well as what the key characteristics are that you’ll need to retain.

Where do you find this stuff?

TradeMe and Ebay are great sources for vintage applications and machines.

We are also occasionally offered computers from the donors of the collections themselves. A couple of months ago at a site visit I commented on a donor’s pristine collection of early Mac installation disks. We got lucky - he replied “You want them? After this project is done I was going to get rid of it all”.

Is it challenging?

Working with computers and applications that are 10-20 years old is not without its challenges. They don’t always behave like you’d expect; they’re slow; they can’t be networked or connected to the internet. They also break down and finding someone who knows enough to fix them is tough.

Online forums are an invaluable source of knowledge and assistance and that’s often the first place we go when things go wrong with our computers. We start at the Classic Computers forum and the Vintage Computer forum.

When our beloved Mac Performa 580CD started throwing a strange error message, we posted the problem on one of the forums. Within a day or two we had some helpful suggestions. A link on another forum also led us to the original operating manual.

How did you use the DOW this week?

This week one of the DOW computers was used to process a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk of digital photographs. Also, one of our digital preservation analysts is using WordStar for DOS, an old word processing program, on a 386 laptop computer to view some novel drafts in their original state. That lets us better understand their font and formatting.

One of our Preservation Analysts examines a WordStar word processing file in its original hardware and software environment, a 386 laptop.One of our Preservation Analysts examines a WordStar word processing file in its original hardware and software environment, a 386 laptop. He then compares its content, font, layout and formatting to the same file, rendered on a more modern computer.

To see some examples of late 1990s word processing documents, check out this collection of Microsoft Word 8.0 files. These documents are useful finding aids to a postcard collection, providing transcripts and biographical details relating to the postcards.

Can you lend a hand?

If you have any vintage hardware or software from the late 1980s / early 1990s that you would like to donate, feel free to get in touch.

We are particularly interested in computers with built-in disk drives capable of reading 3 ½ inch double density disks; 286 computers (circa 1985) and any original install floppy disks for mainstream software programs.

And of course, the point of the DOW is to get at those amazing digital materials. We’re very interested in seeing what you’ve got – your digital materials might be a perfect fit for the collections.

By Leigh Rosin

Leigh is the Digital Archivist at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Adrian August 7th at 1:24PM

I remember the Zip Disks well! I finally got rid of my Zip Disks and reader just a little while ago.

Euan Cochrane June 13th at 1:59PM

This is great stuff. Its good to see the copy of WordStar I acquired being put to use.
However I would have thought that keeping physical hardware forever is not going to be very sustainable. Are your team doing anything with emulation as an alternative option?

Jenny Acton-Phillips April 26th at 5:08PM

CDs are the future!!

Fraser Jackson August 31st at 9:28AM

I have a Compaq Portable III from 1988 which I believe is fully operational. It has additional attachments including a tape drive and reuquires 5 inch floppys for start up.

I used this machine for travel and a range of statistical computing,.

If it might be of use to you please contat me.

National Library of New Zealand August 31st at 3:23PM

Thanks for your offer, Fraser. Sounds very promising. Our Digital Archivist will be in touch with you directly to make arrangements.