A Look at the Archives: The Van Gogh in the Basement

January 22, 2024

By Town Archivist Ashley Large

Have you ever gone on a reconnaissance mission in your basement, finding family treasures long forgotten and covered in cobwebs? These proverbial subterranean riches are what archivists live for… what can be found in the next box, the next folder? Where is the next Van Gogh in the Basement?  

It has been my pleasure to bring to light some of these materials from Bedford’s Town Archives in articles for The Bedford Citizen over the course of the last half year. Archivists are called, not to be the dragon asleep on top of the horde of gold, but to facilitate access to the archival gems within their care. This is one way that I can do that and I’m very glad of the opportunity. I hope you find it enlightening.

Take for instance the trove of 5.25-inch floppy disks that we have in the vault – the ones that are actually floppy. Two large boxes with disks that date from the 1980s to the mid-1990s sit on the shelves in the climate-controlled air.  

Although it is hard to compare them to a painting, they truly are specimens of technology and culture from a bygone era. They carry information about their creator and the time in which they were created, just as any work of art does. These particular disks seem to contain, based on sparse labeling, things such as copies of the Town Census and back-ups of individual computer storage. But really, how can we know?

The MIT Libraries offer a Digital Media Transfer Kit, allowing users to transfer floppy disks to modern computers. Image : mit.edu/

The answer would be to try to access them using computer technology… but wait…  Do you have an Apple II or a Commodore 64 hanging around? (If you do, please get in touch.) The drives that read this type of disk have never been commercially converted to a USB connection so that they can plug into a modern computer. Even if they were, there’s no guarantee that a modern computer has the program to read the files on the disk.

But all hope is not lost. Because we live in an area so rich in technological resources, we are in luck.  

The MIT Libraries offer a Digital Media Transfer Kit (5.25″ Floppy Disks – Digital Media Transfer Kits – LibGuides at MIT Libraries) that allows the user to access information on a floppy disk using a retrofitted drive that will plug into a modern computer. If the disk is still accessible and has not degraded, the user can copy the files to their laptop, allowing them to capture the data and save it for when they can find software or an emulator to read it, as well as saving it from sadly, swiftly degrading media.

On a recent afternoon, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting MIT to use this kit and discover data on several disks. I arrived in the reading room where they kept the retrofitted drive and took my seat. I followed the given instructions, setting up my laptop to receive this fossilized information. And, just like that, the data had traveled, seemingly through time, to my computer.  All that is left is to see if I can find the software needed to read the files. What could be in them?  I still have time to unravel the mystery of this Van Gogh. 

This is the sixth in a series of articles by Bedford Town Archivist Ashley Large. She shares some of the interesting items that are in the town’s archives.

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