Reader Karl Lacher is the latest to inquire about very old files that seemingly can't be opened with a very new Mac. He writes:
Genealogy is my hobby and I have many old Microsoft Word 5 documents stored on my iMac. How can I recover the text from these files with my current copy of Microsoft Office 2011?
As you can probably judge by this article's title, this is well-worn territory. And, regrettably, the path is even less smooth than it once was. But give this a go.
Launch Word 2011 and choose File > Open. Navigate to the document you want access to and click the Open button. With luck, your file will open with something close to its original formatting. (If it doesn't, make sure you have the latest version of Office--choose Help > Check for Updates.) I tried this with a Word 5 file provided to me by Twitter follower Ben Smith (@benptooey) and it opened without including garbage characters. This is hardly an ideal solution as it requires that you open each file individually, but at least it works, which is more than I can say for some other methods.
And what are those other methods? Unlike in days of old--when you could purchase a converter utility--those methods are now far more limited. For the most part you can attempt to open the files in a text editor or within an open-source suite such as NeoOffice or LibreOffice.
When opening my test file with TextEdit and these two applications I saw a fair helping of random characters. With the judicious use of a Find and Replace command I was able to clear out a lot of the junk, but it's not the kind of thing that you want to do with more than a couple of documents.
The lesson learned here is that it pays to save your files in formats likely to be supported over time. Trusting that a single company--even one as large as Microsoft or Apple--will produce a proprietary file format that lasts through the ages isn't a good bet. Use something of a more universal nature--Rich Text Format (RTF) or PDF, for instance--and there's a better chance that your data will be there when you (or your descendants) are old and gray.
Note to commenters: I know this will lead to "But what about AppleWorks' database files!?" Seriously. Don't go there. Just. Don't.