During the recent upgrade of my operating system from Windows XP to Windows 7, I began transferring files from my old computer to a new one. As part of the transfer, I checked one of my old journal files. Now, there needs to be a little bit of an explanation here. I started writing a weekly/daily journal about 35 years ago. The first few years the entries were handwritten, but over time, I changed to keeping my journal on the computer. Printed out, my journal would be thousands of pages. A few years ago I found that my old journal entries were unreadable. The reason at that time was that they were in an old Apple MacWrite program format. It was only through using some of our old computers, which were still hiding in closets and storage, that we could resurrect the old files.
You would think that I had learned my lesson. Years passed. Now I am upgrading yet again. Guess what? Even though the files had been transferred to Microsoft Word, they were no longer recognized by any of the current programs, including an older version of Word and Open Office. After a degree of panic, I began opening the files in a generic text editor, this one is TextEdit from Apple. Fortunately I could get all of the text. Unfortunately, not all of the files were still on the computer. Various sections had disappeared over the years.
Fortunately, I had a print out of the missing sections and could scan the text back into the computer and use an optical character recognition program to reconstruct the files. Unfortunately, this took about two full days of work. Now the files are once again complete, including those portions in handwriting.
There are regularly articles on backing up your work. Actually, I had four or five copies of the files, all of which were readily available. However, there is a more insidious problem, technical obsolescence. Think about it. What if you had a huge collection of 8 track tapes. If your last tape player died, how would you get the music off of the tapes? In that case there are probably services out there in the world that could transfer the music. But it gets a little more complicated in the computer world.
I suppose I could have seen if my last old Macintosh computer would still work and see if I could find a printer to print out the files. In this case, I used a more direct method. Text files. Fortunately, almost all word processing programs use a common text file as the basis for their editing options. Even though none of the formatting, other than line breaks and sometimes paragraph breaks, is preserved, a text editing program can usually open an old file.
In the case of my journal, it is the information that is important, not the formatting, so I was more than happy to have the text files, I can always go back and reformat the text.
This problem happens frequently with genealogy files. From time to time, someone approaches me with an old floppy disk with Personal Ancestral File 2.3 files or something similar. As time goes on, it gets harder and harder to find computers, disk drives and other compatible systems to read these old files.
The rule is simple: if you have old files, regularly convert them (the term is migrate) to newer programs and operating systems. If you are going to do work in a particular program, make sure all of the information can be accessed with each upgrade. Don't assume because you have a file in some program like Microsoft Word that future versions of the program will continue to read the old files. In the case of genealogy files, make sure that the information is moved to newer programs, through GEDCOM or otherwise, on a regular basis.