Hikes through the preservation hinterland

I’ve just finished dealing with two particular digital preservation challenges that exist within the document collection I’m currently working on. The first involved two Lotus Notes files; and the second concerned some Windows Help files. My experience with these issues illustrates a) how just a few files can take a lot of work to resolve, and b) that there’s often an answer out there to seemingly impossible preservation problems provide you are prepared to look diligently enough.

I really didn’t believe I was going to find a way to unlock the Lotus Notes files since Notes is a major and very expensive piece of software that I don’t possess; and, in any case, it applies sophisticated time-limited password and encryption controls for its use. Despite being aware of these issues, I thought I’d take a quick look on the net to see if I could find any relevant advice. It was time well spent; I discovered that it’s possible to download a local evaluation copy of Notes for 90 days, and that, because it doesn’t run on a server, this sometimes enables old Lotus Notes files to be opened. I duly downloaded the software and installed it; and then, regardless of the mysteries of Notes access controls, had access to the whole of one of the files (which contained conference-type material) and to parts of the other (which contained sent messages). I still had the username and expired password from the time the files were created and I think this may have helped to access the latter – though I’m not sure about that. Anyway, in both cases, I was able to print out the material to PDF files. I had to manually reorder the conference-type material and to reinstate a few hundred links in it, but that was it – job done!

The Windows Help files were a lot more demanding. Microsoft stopped supporting the WinHelp system (.HLP files) in 2006 in favour of its replacement, Compiled HTML Help (.CHM files). Although Microsoft did issue a WinHelp viewer for Windows 7 in 2009, WinHelp is essentially an obsolete format – it isn’t supported in Windows 10. I’m still running a Windows 7 system so am still able to view the HLP files – but they had to be converted now if they are ever to be accessed again in the future.

There is much material on the net about how to convert HLP files into CHM files, but, as someone with no knowledge at all about how files in either of these systems are constructed, I didn’t find it easy to understand. I soon realised that converting from one to the other was going to be a challenge. However, I did eventually find a web site which offered clear practical advice which I could follow (http://www.help-info.de/en/Help_Info_WinHelp/hw_converting.htm), and I duly downloaded the recommended HLP decompiler; and the Microsoft HTML Help Workshop software. The process to be followed went something like this:

  • Decompile the HLP file into its component parts (consisting of a help project file with the extension .hpj, along with one or more .rtf documents, an optional .cnt contents file, and any image files – .bmp, .wmf, or .shg – that are used within the Help file).
  • Convert the various HLP files into HTML Help files using a wizard in the HTML Help Workshop tool (the new files consist of a project file with the extension .hhp, one or more HTML files, a .hhc contents file, an optional .hhk index file, and any image files that are used within the Help file).
  • Set parameters in the hhp file to specify a standard Window name and size; and to have a search capability created when the files are compiled into a single CHM file.
  • Reconstruct the Table of Contents using the original HLP file as a guide (in many cases no Table of Contents information comes through the conversion process – and, even when some did, it had lost its numbering). Where the contents had to be created from scratch, each new content item created had to be linked to the specific HTML file to be displayed when that content item is selected.
  • Re-insert spacings in headings: The conversion process also loses the spacing in headings in the base material resulting in headings that look like this, ‘9.1Revised System’ instead of like this ‘9.1  Revised System’. To rectify this problem, the spacings have to be manually re-inserted into each HTML file of base material.
  • Compile the revised files into a single CHM file.

The first HLP file I tried this out on contained just a single Help document with some 130 pages. It took a bit of figuring out, but I eventually got the hang of it. However, the second HLP item was in fact made up of 86 separate HLP files all stitched together to present a unified Table of Contents in a single window in which the base material was also displayed. Many of these 86 separate files had 50 or more pages, and some had many more than that; and each page had to represented separately in the Table of Contents. It was a very long tortuous job converting all 86 HLP files and ensuring that each one had a correct Table of Contents (I didn’t attempt to re-introduce the spacing in the headings – that would have been a torture too far). However, that was not the end of it; the files then had to be stitched together in a single overall file that combined all the individual Tables of Content and that displayed all the base material. This involved inserting a heading for each document, in the master file; and inserting a linking command to call up the Table of Contents for that particular document. Oh, and I should also mention that the HTML Help File Workshop software was very prone to crashing – not a little irritating – I soon learnt to save regularly…..

This overall task must have taken at least 30 or 40 hours – but I did get there in the end. The new CHM file works fine and is perfectly usable, despite three of the documents being displayed in separate windows instead of the single main window (although I spent some time on this issue I was unable to eliminate the problem). Of course, the lack of spacing in the headers is immediately noticeable – but that’s just cosmetics!

No doubt there are specialists out there who would have made a quicker and better job of these conversion activities. However, if you can’t find such people or you haven’t got the money to throw at them, the experiences recounted above show that, with the help of the net, it’s worth having a go yourself at what you may consider to be your most difficult digital preservation challenges.

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