Data

Why the National Archives needs punch-card readers

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Scruffy Millennials covet old record players because they dig the format; the National Archives and Records Administration keeps old file players around because legacy digital data demand them.

"I am preserving every file format that has ever existed on the web, or that any of you have ever used in your work on a daily basis," said Leslie Johnston, NARA's director of digital preservation, who spoke at a March 10 FedScoop event. "In one transfer from one agency, we received not only their email, their Word documents, their PDFs, their PowerPoints -- we actually received the entire contents of their hard drives."

NARA faces a problem of sheer scale, Johnston said, as it will need to manage 500 petabytes of data by 2020.

But diverse file formats are a challenge all their own.

"If our records are not accessible, then they have not been properly preserved and managed," Johnston noted. The Obama administration has pushed for electronic record-keeping wherever possible, but Johnston noted NARA's dual mandate to both offer records in modern, accessible formats and to maintain the original, "authentic" file formats.

The agency gets requests for data in all manner of formats – Johnston said she'd recently received a request for data on punch cards – and sometimes receives records in surprisingly outdated formats.

NARA must be able to read and process the information, so the agency maintains a stable of "vintage media readers" that include various disc and tape players.

For NARA, the management struggle will be constant in coming years, said Brian Houston, engineering VP at Hitachi Data Systems' federal outfit.

Houston said Hitachi has been working with NARA on versioning files, so that a record can be linked to both modern and its original formats instead of having to be copied into a completely separate file.

The many formats, many readers problem isn't going away, Houston acknowledged, but the private sector may see an opportunity: thanks to federal record-keeping, there will always be a market for CD players and the like.

"I'm sure there's somebody in the industry who'd love to be able to have that niche," Houston said.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.

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