Digital Detectives: Computer Media Inventory

Digital Detectives: Computer Media Inventory

Robina Torres, Archives Intern Spring 2007

Computer media formats

Have you ever thought about how much digital information you store on a regular basis? Think about all the devices you have used to carry information like papers, photos, personal information, etc. from one point to another. The devices can be anything from your phone to USB’s to external hard drives, anything that holds digital information. I have personally amassed quite a few just in my college years. Now think about how much information an institution stores on a daily basis for many years. Together with the McNay’s Archivist, Heather Ferguson, we surveyed the museum’s archival holdings to identify and locate all computer media. This project was modeled after the Jump In initiative created by the Society of American Archivists, which encourage and assist archivists and their institutions to stop waiting and “jump in” to managing born-digital content. As an MSIS candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, a lot of what we are being taught is focused on digital records management and their preservation needs. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to embark on this for my final capstone project. 

Inventory in process

Since the McNay had never initiated a full-scale survey of computer media in the archives, and because new born-digital records are being created daily, there is a pressing need to implement a formal digital preservation workflow. Knowing what is in your archive and having a complete inventory are the first steps to making that happen. This meant I got to dig into their two main areas where archival holdings are housed: Archives storage and Heather’s processing office; both of which contain processed and backlog materials. Together we opened every box and looked in every folder for computer media in the form of 5.25 floppies, 3.50 floppies, zip disks, CD/DVD-R’s, USB’s, and hard drives. We were archival detectives, flagging the boxes and folders for the next phase of inventory, a more in-depth look at each item for any metadata (a set of data that describes and gives information about other data) we could record.

We began this project towards the end of January and completed it by the end of April. Needless to say, I became well acquainted with McNay’s archival holdings. I got to learn more about Marion Koogler McNay and the institution as a whole. Did you know an art school operated on the McNay grounds for nearly 5 decades, from 1943-1992? When searching the backlog, we discovered a box full of 5.25 floppies, totaling close to 100! I was also surprised to see CD/DVD-R’s that were branded as “Archival Gold – The 300 Year Disc.” It gives off a false sense of protection that your information is safely stored for the future. From a preservation perspective, it is not recommended that CD/DVD-Rs be used as a long-term storage for your data. However, using the “Archival Gold” or another high-quality disc indicates the materials used to manufacture the discs have good durability and are reasonably stable. The protective gold layer prevents pollutants from attacking the die layer (where the data is recorded), but this will not guarantee the longevity of the media itself. Will we even have the ability to read these discs in 300 years? Digital preservation is not just about the actual device, but also about being able to access that information in the future. Now that the initial inventory of the computer media at the McNay is complete, the next phase of digital archiving can proceed.

Want to know more? Contact Archivist Heather Ferguson – at