What to Do With Floppy Disks?

Do you or someone you know have lots of files saved on floppy disks? A lady contacted me recently and asked how she could read her old floppy disks that she had saved from many years ago. It seems her present computer does not have a floppy disk drive in it. I suggested she do something NOW to save the disks. Before long, floppy disks will be about as useful as buggy whips.

Actually, there are THREE separate problems:

The first problem is that floppy disks were never designed for long-term storage for years and years. The manufacturers usually stated ten to twenty years’ life expectancy for floppies if they were stored in ideal conditions. A typical residence isn’t ideal.

In addition, floppy disks have always been highly sensitive to dust, condensation and temperature extremes. As with any magnetic storage, it is also vulnerable to magnetic fields. If the disk isn’t stored in optimum conditions, the data will disappear because of these vulnerabilities. In many cases, data will disappear from floppies in much less than ten years.

The second problem is the one my correspondent mentioned: she no longer owns a floppy disk drive. In fact, the manufacturers stopped including floppy disk drives on new computers years ago. Luckily, you can still purchase floppy disk drives today although they are becoming rare.

If possible, see if someone you know owns an older computer that includes both a floppy disk drive and some method of copying information from floppy disks to some other media. Possibilities are to transfer across a network, transfer on the Internet, copy to a flash drive, or maybe to “burn” to a CD-ROM.

If you cannot find an older computer, you can purchase an external USB floppy drive that plugs into the USB port of most any modern Windows or Macintosh computer. The drives typically cost $10 to perhaps $30. You can see a selection of USB 3 1/2-inch floppy disk drives for sale today at http://goo.gl/Krtc1.

If you have an even older 5-1/4-inch floppy, your search will be more difficult. Very few of the older disk drives were ever manufactured with a USB connection. However, if you are willing to open the computer and bolt in an internal floppy drive, you might still be able to find a few on eBay.

The third, and possibly the biggest, problem of all is the information stored on the disk. Even if the data has not disappeared, and even if you can copy the files to more modern media, can you find a program today that will read the files created by a program ten or twenty years ago? For instance, if you have files created by Roots 3 (a popular genealogy program of the 1980s), you will have difficulty finding any program today that will read information stored in that old format. To my knowledge, Roots 3 files can only be read by Roots 3 or later versions of the same program. Unfortunately, no program today can read Roots 3 files. The same is true for data saved in old versions of Personal Ancestral File, Family Tree Maker, or genealogy programs that have since disappeared from the marketplace, such as The Family Edge or Generations Grande Suite.

My advice:

1. Copy the files NOW! Whatever is stored on a floppy disk may disappear at any time. Save it while you can. Copy the files to modern media.

2. Attempt to open the files with a modern word processor or genealogy program or even a simple ASCII file viewer, such as Windows Notepad. If you are lucky, you may be able to read the information.

3. If you cannot read the files, post messages on online forums asking for assistance from anyone who still has an old computer with the old software installed. For instance, if you find someone who still has Roots3 installed on a computer someplace (and if they also have the optional Roots 3 program that creates GEDCOM files), they could import your data and then export it in GEDCOM format. The information then can be read by any modern genealogy program.

For more information about GEDCOM files, see my “GEDCOM Explained” article at https://blog.eogn.com/2014/05/24/gedcom-explained/.

Whatever you do, don’t get trapped in the obsolescence problems again. Copy your data often to whatever new media has recently become available.

17 Comments

Good advice – but when you backup, do so by differing means. For example on optical media/external hard drive/the cloud – that way at least one format should be usable when you need it. Just remember to keep all your backups in sync.
And as a backstop, think seriously about keeping a paper copy – you may curse if you have to re-enter all your genealogical data from scratch. But you may be even more despondent if you have to recreate your file from all those original documents that you kept properly filed (you did, didn’t you?).

And apart from the ‘easy’ bit of finding a suitable program to read your disks, you may find that they are not readable at all on a modern PC or Mac, given the number of computer models available before we standardised on one or two.

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We started saving important information to the next thing as soon as they were switching over to the smaller floppies, then to the CDs, then to the USBs, am tired of this Nonsense but as you said no more places to use them anymore. Now we have an extended drive we try to keep this stuff. The main thing is the changes to our emails to .EMT extensions, there is a way to get them yet on an old XL computer I still have, and have tried to keep the photos off them in the first place if any. But there is only so much a person can do, and then learn all the new Tech as well, do they think we have so much time to work it all out.
Very annoying.

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“However, if you are willing to open the computer and bolt in an internal floppy drive, you might still be able to find a few on eBay.” Won’t work. Floppy drives require a floppy controller, traditionally incorporated onto the motherboard. If the computer doesn’t come with a floppy drive, its motherboard won’t have the necessary floppy controller chip and interface. Floppy disk controllers used to be available as plug-in cards for the older expansion slot types; offhand I do not know, but doubt, if there are any for slot types present in recent motherboards such as PCI and later.

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    —> Floppy drives require a floppy controller, traditionally incorporated onto the motherboard.

    Not always. Later external floppy drives are still available that plug into a USB connector. You don’t even need to open the case of the PC, they even work on laptop computers.

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    You are correct with 5 1/4″ floppies. I have a 360K and a 1.2M drive but I had to find an old Win 98 PC to use them. You do need a controller and an IDE interface for these old floppy drives and I have never seen an external 5 1/4″ floppy. Dick’s comment is correct about 3.5″ floppies, you can get external USB versions of them. As for old software, I recently helped someone transfer data out of Reunion 4 for PC. I also have Roots 3 and Generations running on an XP Netbook to help members of VicGUM here in Australia to move their data into newer programs. I got ride of all my 5 1/4″ floppy disks several years ago, but some of them could not be read (interestingly they were often the more expensive brands) and some belonged to backup sets created in Windows 3.1 which I didn’t even try to see if there was a way to extract the data from – they were cut in half and into the bin!!

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There is another way to deal with data on obsolete media. Just let it go. If you have not used data on old hardware for ten or more years, do you really need it? Sometimes, maybe. Most of the data on old computers that you really needed to use has been copied to the new computer’s hard drive when you got it. Everyone’s situation is different but I think most all the data on old disks probably has no real need to be copied.

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    This discussion–and your sentiment about letting go–is also appropriate to cassette tapes. While a great thing 30 years ago, the magnetic media used by cassettes is fundamentally the same as floppies. It may be too late if you haven’t already transferred those interviews or family sing-a-longs by now. The same goes for family movies on VHS.

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I’m thinking ahead. Even if you do update routinely and conscientiously, what is going to happen when you are no longer here to do it yourself? Do you think your kids/heirs will take on the task of updating your old data to keep up with changes in the software and hardware? (I’m laughing uncontrollably just thinking about it!) I still feel the easiest solution is to stop wasting time — compile what you have currently into a few hard copies, finished or not — pass them out to a few descendants AND donate at least one copy to a local historical society in the area where your people lived. It’s about the best you can do to preserve long-term access to your work.

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Another way of making sure your research does not get lost is to post it online to various websites that accept gedcom files. That way, even if your house burns down, you can still download a copy of your research.

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David Paul Davenport December 29, 2017 at 1:51 pm

I still have the Kaypro I bought in 1978. It is an excellent door stop. I also have a box of 80 col punch cards used as a paper weight.

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I still have the hardware to handle all these items, and they all still work… I also now have a 2nd. computer (modern, upgraded) can I be safe by downloading all my disk from these items to my 2nd. computer and then decide where to store it?, cloud, flash drive, etc.???

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All this discussion is why I have always said that PAPER hard copies are the best thing you can do with your genealogy data…. whether it is print or photos, print it all on archiveable paper and store it in archiveable boxes!!

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    —> whether it is print or photos, print it all on archiveable paper and store it in archiveable boxes!!

    Excellent suggestions! However, don’t forget the ink. Most of today’s inkjet inks are water based or based on quick-drying chemicals. They will fade quickly within a very few years. Laser printer toner isn’t ink at all and it doesn’t get absorbed into the paper in the same manner as real ink. Toner simply is fused (melted) and stuck onto the outside of the paper during the printing process. Toner will start to flake off and appear as lighter and lighter greys within a decade or two. For an example, look at an old photocopy made years ago. Photocopiers also use the same toner technology although toners have improved in recent years. Still, they do not last forever.

    The best solution is archival quality inkjet cartridges. Anything printed with archival quality inkjet cartridges will last for quite a few years. However, archival quality inkjet cartridges are expensive, difficult to find, and are not available at all for the cheaper consumer-grade inkjet printers. Such cartridges often are available for commercial-quality (and more expensive) inkjet printers designed for use in offices, printing services, and other high-usage applications.

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As my last computer with floppy drives was in it’s death throws I went through my floppies and copied them to CD’s or put them back on my hard drive. What was not important sits in a landfill somewhere in Texas. The biggest challenge was putting an old data base file into and excel spread sheet, but I got it done. It is now getting time to start going through my CD’s and start thinning them out.

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I have a floppy disk drive that plugs in and works with my computer, so that I can read my floppies still.

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I still use floppies in my collection of Sony Mavica cameras. They focus extremely close and are the perfect resolution for Craig’s list and e-bay.

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