Paul Wheatley

Paul Wheatley

Last updated on 30 January 2017

I was reminded this week about the issue of software preservation from a couple of different quarters. First by a slightly random twitter conversation about reading lists, and secondly by the latest blog post from David Rosenthal. The former took me back to one of the first pieces of digital preservation literature I ever read. It was originally recommended to me by former colleague, friend and mentor, David Holdsworth. It helped me to really understand, for the first time, what the challenges of preserving digital stuff were all about. It's a short piece in the Computer Conservation Society bulletin called "The Problems of Software Conservation" by Doron Swade. It delves into what it means to preserve something interactive, where the function is (largely) more important than the physical form. Looking back, what strikes me about this writing is the date of publication. 1993. Despite many advances in digital preservation, so much so that someone touting the existence of a digital dark age provokes a backlash, we still haven't nailed the software preservation problem 22 years later.

David Rosenthal's recent blog post delves right into the largely legal reasons behind this, and supports a sensible way of slowly moving forward. Although copyright and licensing are the main problems, it's also I think an issue of roles, responsibilities and funding. Although most memory organisations will need some software preservation in order to keep their non-executable data alive, few have really taken on and owned the role. There are some notable exceptions in the States and in Europe, but certainly here in the UK it's been a disappointing picture. The museum sector in particular has not moved from custodian of the object to custodian of the code. The story that Swade's paper brings to life unfortunately rings hollow. Organisations have likely been reluctant to move into new collecting and preserving areas, when they can barely stay afloat financially as it is. Software preservation within museums has largely stopped at putting boxes on shelves (and small scale albeit tremendous educational roles such as that at TNMOC). This is a shame as I think one of the major gaps between libraries and the tech focused museums has in fact been the software. Bridging the gap would bring dividends for all.

On a more personal note, I was disappointed in recent times to see the National Media Museum contract and effectively withdraw staffing for the National Videogame Archive. After being threatened with closure and only escaping (with massive cuts) after a public campaign it's perhaps not surprising that software isn't on the priority list. The current funding outlook in the UK is of course utterly depressing...

Some European memory institutions have at least collected software, and Rosenthal points to the legal deposit route as a way of edging us closer to success. In the UK unfortunately, our track record has been disappointing. The (relatively) recent changes in legal deposit legislation were pretty conservative, and the legal deposit libraries aren't actually collecting software themselves.

The one glimmer of hope has been from the Galleries sector of our memory institution quartet, where organisations such as the Tate, have moved carefully forward into the digital domain. While preserving complex interactive digital artworks is not a challenge to be sniffed at, this is tackling a substantially different problem from the broader software archive that we need to access our data under emulation.

Looking at the problem from the other direction, engagement with some of the larger software publishers could prove fruitful, and some progress was made with Microsoft (to the company's credit) a few years back. A more sustained effort here might make the broader legal/legislation issue easier to tackle...

So we have something of a gap here in the UK. Why we have little interest in preserving software is beyond me. Whether considering the UK's role in the birth of computing, the emergence of the home computer market, the vast income made from the computer games industry today or the recent return to programming as something of real value to teach our kids: software *is* now actually sexy. And you can quote me on that (although I will of course deny saying it). Software is at the heart of the story of our time: the revolution in IT. Why are our memory organisations not collecting and preserving it?

From the technology side, we've had a lot of great work from an array of projects and initiatives, as summarised in an over the top manner by yours truly when I proclaimed 2014 the "year of emulation" at the DPC Digital Preservation Awards. But this of course makes it all the more frustrating that just as emulation matures as a really usable technology we can't legally do much with it.

I don't believe that we're in such a bad place that we should preserve our data by printing it out - far from it. But if we want to feel confident about #nodigitaldarkage then running old software is going to be important, and this is certainly where I do agree with Vint Cerf.

We often seem resigned to the idea that changing the legal situation in order to provide exceptions for software preservation (or perhaps I should say "access to our data using old software") is so unlikely that it's a battle not worth fighting. I disagree. This is a problem we must address if we want our future digital preservation to be really successful.

Championing the touted UNESCO software archive, and progress made by European partners, should certainly be on the agenda. But we should also not give up on making the case for software preservation in the UK.

Paul Wheatley, Head of Research and Practice, DPC

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