Updating documents in old formats

July 7, 2008

Problem: I’ve been reading up on this new [version, platform, operating system] coming out soon and I want to know if it will be able to read older versions of Microsoft programs… like Word 98, and RTF extensions. If it doesn’t read them, then how am I suppose to salvage nearly 60 disks full of my short stories and stuff I don’t want to lose??

My advice:

My advice for older formats such as Word 95, Word 97 etc, is to convert them now to another format. Not necessarily to another Word format, but to something more generic (and potentially more likely to live longer) such as HTML or XML or one of the Open Document formats. That way you’re future-proofed for a while, no matter what software comes along.

It’s the same dilemma those of us of a certain age and over ;) have—what do we do with our old vinyl records, even our now-old CDs, and video tapes, and possibly soon-to-be-dead DVDs? There will always be new technology coming out (barring global catastrophe), and updating is an issue we all have to face, whether it’s our electronic documents, digital photos (gee, remember slides??), music, or whatever. While you may still have that old record player for your vinyls, you probably don’t still have the old computer that your Word 97 was installed on.

Think of both electronic and hard copy storage:

  • With electronic you could go to HTML/XML/ODF, or even throw the contents up on to a private blog (e.g. WordPress has the option to keep your blog private… of course, you don’t know how long WordPress etc. will be around, so that’s a risk… as is any web-based storage. But blogs like WordPress allow you to export your content in an XML file, so at least the content is preserved.)
  • Print out your documents with a laser printer (or something other than dot matrix (!) or ink jet). This creates some degree of permanency AND you can always scan them into software at a later date if you need them (OCR software is getting better and better). There’s something to be said for the permanency of books and paper!
  • Another hard copy solution if you don’t want to keep them electronically (i.e., they are finished), is to do some ‘vanity press’ printing through one of the on-demand print places, or a service like lulu.com or blurb.com where you can print your own book.

And a realistic look:

  • How soon before your machines are ALL on Vista and Office 2007? Possibly some years yet…
  • Can you still ‘read’ those Word 97 documents on Word 2003, for example? If so, load ’em up and save them into the Word 2003 format. While Word 2007 needs a converter to read Word 2003 documents, it is readily and freely available from Microsoft.
  • RTF is unlikely to go away soon! TXT is even less likely to go away.
  • Be aware that magnetic disks are inherently an unsafe medium that are very affected by their storage environment, so getting your documents off floppy disks should be an urgent priority in my opinion. Also, computers built in the past few years no longer have a floppy drive.

Summary: My advice would be to get them out of the Word 97 format and off floppy disks ASAP. The longer you leave it, the more likely you are to find that you can’t read these formats at all.

Update April 2009: David Pogue of The New York Times interviewed Dag Spicer from the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley about data rot and old formats: http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/26/should-you-worry-about-data-rot/

[Links last checked April 2009]

One comment

  1. […] See also: Updating documents in old formats […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: