The nineties saw huge changes in personal computing, as operating systems became more complex, Internet connections became common, and the World Wide Web appeared. This meant a lot of instability as formats came and went.
This past weekend I discovered a CD-ROM in my closet with the production files for a small-run songbook, The Pegasus Winners (optimistically called “Volume 1”), that I produced in 1994. The good news is that the CD is still readable. The bad news is that I can’t read most of the files. The not-so-bad news is that I could probably recover them with moderate effort.
Looking at the details gives an idea of the ways old files can become useless. There are several files in the Stuffit format, which was once the leading Mac format for compressed archives. The music notation files use Concertware, which hasn’t been available for years and doesn’t run on recent computers. I assembled the book using an application called “Ready, Set, Go!” which is no longer maintained.
Stuffit is still sold, so I could expand the archives, though I think I already have all the files they contain. Ready, Set, Go! may still be available for computers running OS X 10.6 or earlier. Concertware would be the hardest part to recover, but it might not be needed, since all the music was imported into Ready, Set, Go!
With some determined effort, I could probably make a new digital master for the book and then export it to a PDF so it would be usable for the foreseeable future. In this case, there isn’t much demand for a reissue, and it’s easier just to make second-generation copies from an existing book if necessary.
It’s not clear what I could have done better. PDF was a new format at the time, and there wasn’t much reason to think it would outlast its competitors. Converting a file from Ready, Set, Go!’s proprietary format would have been a software development project. If I’d thought to revisit the matter a few years later, I might have been able to convert the book to a more lasting format.
We have things much easier now — or at least it appears that way at the moment. How well files that aren’t under regular curation today will do in twenty years remains to be seen.