Author: Sam Brady, 21st January 2022

Normally, when you think of archives, you might think of stacks of legal documents, books and loose sheets of paper. In the case of sports history, you might imagine there are lots of administrative records, rulebooks and magazines, amongst other things. Primarily, these are the sorts of things I’ve been organising and box listing during my time with the WheelPower Collection. However, we recently hit a cache of digital storage methods that you might not expect to belong in an archive: CDs, DVDs, floppy disks and cassette tapes. These types of storage devices potentially present some challenges for our archiving project and may similarly present preservation challenges in the future.

In actuality, data storage formats like CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes are a normal feature of many archives, especially given the explosion of digital media in professional, entertainment and personal settings by the end of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century. In the WheelPower Collection, these items contain data related to a variety of subjects. The majority are photos or videos from various disability sport events and competitions, such as WheelPower’s Inter Spinal Unit Games, National Junior Games, and Primary Sports Camps. There are also recordings relating to the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, educational VHS tapes, and cassettes referring to some of WheelPower’s prior fundraising efforts. In fact, many of these items – primarily floppy disks and a few CDs – contain record of WheelPower’s administrative past, highlighting files to be printed or transferred, corporate guidelines, and even old Microsoft Windows installer packages. Most of these items range from the early 1990s to the late 2000s, with the last few dating from around the time of the 2012 Paralympic Games. However, despite all the information on these disks, we don’t currently have access to this data.


Two boxes from the WheelPower Archive. AR116/2019, Box 26, (right), is full of VHS tapes and a disk wallet. AR116/2019, Box 28, (left), is filled with individual CDs and DVDs in cases. © WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

As you might imagine, we would need specialist equipment to read or extract the data off of these items: Disk drives for CDs and DVDs, readers for VHS tapes, etc. As technology advances, the data recorded on these formats increasingly becomes inaccessible.[i] This could be due to the file types themselves or the physical ability to connect readers to our modern machines. Devices to carry out these services do exist, but the matter of resources often gets in the way – usually time and money. Additionally, there is the spectre of degradation which hangs over these storage devices. The data contained within can be easily corrupted by either physical damage – such as disk scratches, disc rot[ii] or tangled magnetic tape – or natural degradation. In order to record data on VHS tapes, for instance, sounds and images are magnetised to the magnetic tape inside. However, this magnetism can fade over time, and the data is no longer recoverable.[iii] This type of natural degradation also applies to CDs and DVDs. According to the National Archives of Australia[iv]:

Optical disks are not regarded as long-term archival media. However, a lower temperature and relative humidity will slow their natural deterioration. ...  Technological obsolescence is a major factor that threatens long-term use of optical disks. CDs made today can be in excellent condition in 30 years. But the data may be inaccessible if the hardware to play them or the software to interpret them has been superseded. The cost of recovering data from obsolete media and data formats is likely to be high and time consuming.

Inherently, these formats will degrade, even with the best of preservation efforts, adding a ticking clock on top of the issues of physical access that plague these formats. To this end, digitisation appears to be one of the best ways to preserve this data, but digitisation may come with its own challenges. The Smithsonian, for instance, quotes issues around obsolete file formats and operating systems and file accessibility and storage – but this is a topic for another day![v] Nevertheless, there is a risk of data loss with these items, losing countless photos, videos and other files. This is especially worrying given the relatively young history of organisations like WheelPower, and organised disability sport as a whole. In theory, records of events and competitions from this two-decade period could be easily lost.

A storage container, half filled with floppy disks of various colours. AR116/2019, Box 18, item 47. © WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

Despite all my above catastrophising, what can we gleam from these items currently? As stated, we do not have the equipment or time to access these files, comb over their contents and extract their data at present. So the data stored within these items are mostly a mystery to us. However, quality labelling on many of these items have served as our guide through the collection. This has presented an issue when labels are vague, contradictory (e.g. the disc and disc case stating two different contents) or non-existent. This also assumes that the seemingly high-quality labels are themselves accurate. But without being able to access the data inside, these labels will have to do for now. In actuality, many of these labels have added an extra layer of detail for use, as normally they will note the name of the company or individual who the data was for, from or taken by. Notability, one name kept popping up: Graham Bool. Bool was a Wheelchair Basketball player, staying in the sport for 12 years, and competing in the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Paralympic Games. He also had an interest in photography, and upon retirement was approached by the British Sports Association for the Disabled to be a photographer.[vi] Taking on this work professionally, he covered a range of Disability sports events, from Paralympics Games between 1992 and 2008, to the aforementioned National Junior and Inter Spinal Unit Games.[vii] Examples of Bool’s work fill the boxes in the WheelPower archive and are a testament to his work. In some ways, this allows the labels on these disks to tell a broader story than simply describing the contents within. They leave a physical record of photographers, administrators and organisers who are also worthy of archival remembrance alongside the athletes and events themselves. Roger Bool, Graham’s son, is a photographer himself and still works with WheelPower.

The challenges presented by data recorded in these formats are numerous, and the spectre of data degradation and format inaccessibility is a big concern for these objects. But their physical nature is not entirely a drawback, as the tangibility of CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes and floppy disks provides us with extra narrative details which may not be present, or at least as obvious, with fully digitised data. At the very least, going through the boxes containing these items was interesting just to see the shifting state of physical storage media throughout the years – floppy disks, VHS and cassettes turned into DVDs and CDs, which were then seemingly replaced by digital storage and the cloud. Who knows what will come next?

If you want to read more about VHS preservation, I recommend checking out this recent effort to upload hundreds of VHS tapes to the Internet: 

[i] ‘The challenges of digital preservation’, The British Library.
[ii] Jess Thompson, ‘Worried About Disc Rot? Here’s How to Look After Your CDs’, February 4, 2019, Discogs Blogs,
[iii] ‘Videotapes Are Becoming Unwatchable as Archivists Work to Save Them’, June 3, 2017, NPR,
[iv] ‘Preserving CDs and DVDs’, National Archives of Australia,
[v] ‘Digital Preservation Challenges and Solutions’, Smithsonian Institution Archives,
[vi] ‘The sad passing of Graham Bool’, 21 September 2010, The International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation,
[vii] ‘Graham Bool (1948-2010)’, 20 September 2010, EPUK,