Digital Forensics: A GC Student’s Success Story with the help of the GC Library

Kelsey Chatlosh: As the variety of digital technologies continue to expand and advance, more and more digital objects become obsolete when using contemporary hardware or software.  For researchers, this may arise as a roadblock to accessing data saved in an older digital form, such as floppy discs, older CDs, or VHS tapes. Many of us may just disregard data saved in those forms entirely, assuming it cannot be accessed.

However, this is not necessarily the case.  This blog post is to share a “digital forensics” success story of Angela Crumdy, a GC anthropology Ph.D. student and fellow cohortian and friend of mine, who was able to access an old CD with invaluable data on teachers in Cuba for her forthcoming dissertation research. Per my advice as a Digital Fellow who works closely with various realms of the #digitalGC, Angela reached out to GC’s Digital Scholarship Librarian Stephen Zweibel. He, together with GC Librarian Silvia Cho, hacked their way into the data stored on that old CD.

The following is insight on “digital forensics” from Stephen. Read here for Angela’s account of this success story.

Stephen Zweibel: The term “Digital Forensics,”  which conjures vague thoughts of crime on the internet, may seem out of place in a research context. Indeed, the tools and techniques of digital forensics are used to determine the software content of digital devices and have relevance to legal and criminal proceedings. But these same tools and techniques can be applied to problems of data recovery in many kinds of research.

Researchers often face significant challenges in accessing digitally stored data–whether their own or others’–which impedes the progress of their work. It could be that the software used to generate the data created a file type that is now unreadable, possibly because the program in which the file was made can no longer be purchased or used. In some cases, that data may turn out to be inaccessible, but often, processes that fall under the umbrella of digital forensics can be used to solve these problems.

BitCurator, for instance, is an application designed to employ the techniques of digital forensics for the purpose of archiving. We could use its data triage toolset to get the metadata about a file we could not access, which might uncover clues about how to open it. However, there may be simpler techniques to try first: we could start by googling the relevant filetype (the part of the filename after the period, e.g. .EXE or .DOC) to see what might work.

Of course, the real solution to data access problems is prevention. When you are creating data for your own or another’s use, do so using open standards, and open-source software, so that users in the future (you or others) will still be able to access it. When working with data, be sure to make and store copies in different places, to ensure that hardware failure or catastrophe do not imperil your research. (A phrase to keep in mind for data storage is: “Here, Near, and Far.”) Finally, provide documentation about your data so that you or others will be able to see what the data is, how and when it was generated and stored, etc. 

Broadly, these considerations are the domain of Data Management–something I would be happy to discuss and help troubleshoot for individual projects. You can reach me via email at, or fill out a research consultation request form.

About the Author

Stephen Zweibel is Digital Scholarship Librarian at The Graduate Center.