Will this happen to you?
A lady called me this morning to ask advice about her genealogy data. Her laptop died. She has no backups.
This particular laptop apparently is more than twenty years old. It probably ran MS-DOS, the operating system that was widely used before the appearance of Windows. I have to say "probably" as I haven't seen the laptop and this lady wasn't sure. She used a genealogy program on the computer but she couldn't remember the name of the program. She asked if there was some method of copying all her data from her dead laptop to a new system she is about to purchase.
There is a possibility that the data can be copied but I would suggest the odds are slim. First, the laptop's failure may have been caused by a physically damaged hard drive. If so, all hope is lost. Physical damage to a disk drive cannot be reversed except (possibly) by very expensive procedures.
Next, there is no doubt that the lady I talked with does not possess the technical expertise to solve the problem herself. She will need assistance from a technician with some specific expertise and knowledge of old genealogy software.
If the laptop's hard drive is still functional and if that hard drive's interface is one that is still supported today, which is doubtful, a technician may be able to remove the hard drive in question and connect it to a more modern computer, then copy the data files to that modern system. Then the more difficult work begins.
The next requirement will be to identify the program used to create those files. Popular MS-DOS genealogy programs of more than twenty years ago included Roots-III, Family Roots, The Family Edge, Personal Ancestral File, Family Ties, and others.
Next, the technician will need to find someone with a functioning old computer that still has the appropriate program installed and can read the newly-recovered data files. That might be the biggest challenge of all.
If the data files can be read, the odds are good that the technician can then print all the data on paper. A GEDCOM export might be possible, depending on the program used. Not all genealogy programs of twenty years ago had the capability to export GEDCOM files. If the program in question can't export, the only answer is to manually re-enter every bit of information into a modern program on the keyboard.
Now, here is my question: where will your genealogy data be twenty years from now?
Preserving genealogy is a simple task, if someone is paying attention. However, all information does need to be copied to more modern formats every few years. In this case, "modern formats" include both modern storage devices (hard drives, floppy drives, jump drives, CD-ROM disks, or whatever future technology becomes available) as well as keeping the data in a format that can be read (GEDCOM, ASCII text).
Probably the worst solution of all is to print everything on paper. Inks fade and toner fades. Your print-outs may look great today but will they be readable twenty years from now? I have printouts in my filing cabinet made twenty-five years ago that are nearly illegible today because of faded ink and toner. Another problem is that today's computer paper is typically acid based and won't last all that long. It probably will last at least twenty years, however.
In any case, you really don't want to manually re-type everything on the keyboard, do you?
If your information is important to you, take steps now to make sure it remains available under any conditions, including hardware failures and technical obsolescence.