Q I have some important old documents which were created using Microsoft Word before 2002; most are from around 1998 to 2000. Word 2011 refuses to open them properly now, displaying a mass of garbage characters, or a simple alert complaining of obviously spurious errors. Have I got to go back and type these in again from printed versions?
A Provided that they have not suffered bit rot or undergone other forms of corruption, you should still be able to open them now.
The first task is to ensure that apps recognise them as being in Word 97 format, so that they try to use the right code to import their binary content. Do this by giving each a ‘.doc’ file extension, which is standard for Word native format documents. Sometimes this does the trick, but with older Word files, current import code no longer seems to work properly. An easy test of that is to select the document in the Finder. If generic Word import libraries can support access, you should now see a Quick Look preview of the content of the document. If instead you still see an empty document, or one for another app, you need to get a bit more ingenious.
If you do not have the current release of LibreOffice installed, download and install it. You should find that your old Word documents open perfectly using it. Although as office suites go, NeoOffice and OpenOffice are arguably just as good, LibreOffice has its own Word import code which still seems able to cope with documents that others cannot.
Given that Microsoft still owns its proprietary .doc format (although it did release most of its details in 2008), it is completely unacceptable that current versions of Microsoft Word are incapable of opening documents created by older versions of Word. Good for the LibreOffice team for stepping in to support these old files. Among the other apps which I tried but failed to open old .doc documents with, were Nisus Writer Pro, Mellel, NeoOffice, and OpenOffice: they all seem to rely on the common import library in OS X, whilst LibreOffice goes the extra mile.
There does not appear to be any problem with older Excel spreadsheets, thankfully. Old Rich Text Format (RTF) documents should remain fully accessible from a wide range of apps, although they may not retain their original layout and styles as well.
You would be forgiven for thinking that a software giant such as Microsoft would ensure that the millions of important documents created by older versions of its premier enterprise apps should remain accessible in perpetuity. Before archiving documents which you wish to retrieve in the future, convert them to archival formats such as those based on Unicode text, PDF, and open graphics formats. Although you may lose some of the convenience of their original binary formats, their content should remain accessible for many decades to come.