Jessica Meyerson is Research Program Officer for Educopia Institute in Austin, Texas, United States

One of key characteristic of information infrastructure outlined by Star & Ruhleder (1996) is that is ‘becomes visible on breakdown.’[1] While software does in fact breakdown, requiring patches or upgrades, as digital materials move from active use to the reuse context of cultural memory organizations, software breakdown can be understood as the inability to support meaningful access to digital information (ie, scientific or social scientific data, born-digital manuscript materials, complex models of the built environment) due to software dependencies and their associated challenges. This breakdown not only shines light on software (as cultural heritage itself and a tool for accessing existing digital cultural heritage), it makes visible the social structures and practices in which software is embedded – is a comprehensive breakdown of social structures to support information access including communication, legal systems and markets. By thinking about software as infrastructure we gain insight into ways in which software preservation fits into broader digital preservation practice as well as approaches that may prove to be the most effective in addressing the challenges of software preservation.

Evidenced by the nearly forty year discussion around software preservation across information studies, history of computing and cultural memory literature, this access breakdown, like most infrastructure breakdowns, are relatively slow in the making.[2] There is long-standing awareness of “software-dependence”[3] but the feasibility of systematic approaches to software preservation and access have been a source of debate.[4][5][6][7][8]However, shifts in scale and scope associated with digital information, evolution of standards and best practices, proven success of consortial models for digital preservation services and the development of a growing set of tools that allow cultural heritage professionals to tackle scale and scope have all contributed to a revisitation of how best to systematically approach the associated challenges of software preservation.

The Software Preservation Network (SPN)[9] was first discussed in a public forum in 2014 as a logical extension of the programmatic and project based work completed up to that point. In 2016, thank to the generous support of Institute for Museum and Library Services, SPN was established as the growing Network that it is today – a community grounded in a Collective Impact[10] approach that focuses on broadening participation in software preservation and creating a space for projects, programs, organizations and individuals involved in software preservation activities to be aware of and amplify on one another’s work. The common agenda, the mission, that unites SPN's participants and supporters is to preserve software through community engagement, infrastructure support and knowledge generation. SPN defines software preservation at the Network level as five core activity areas we believe are necessary to effectively preserve software: Legal/Policy, Metadata/Standards, Training/Education, Research, and Technological Infrastructure. Communication, Governance and Advisory Groups support the work of these five core activity areas.

There are more than 30 organizations represented in SPN's activities, and that number is increasing as we learn about allied organizations, related projects that focus on a particular activity area (Ex. Technical Infrastructure or Metadata) or programmatic efforts that may have the capacity to address several key activity areas (Ex. Training & Education, Technical Infrastructure and Metadata). As specific access approaches like emulation continue to mature, SPN’s approach and potential to enable systematic/coordinated software preservation through its five activity areas will prove increasingly relevant. Access approaches for software and software-dependent materials are only useful if we have successfully preserved software. Collaboration across use cases and across borders is crucial in the preservation of software because software itself reaches beyond any single event or one site practice.[11]

One way that individuals can help to advance the goals of software preservation is to share your story. Hearing how individuals are impacted by software obsolescence (your personal digital assets, your research, your teaching, your collections) is a powerful way to make the effort more accessible and relevant to our colleagues, our administrative advocates, our policymakers and our users. Use this template as a guide and submit your story to jessica[at]educopia[dot]org.

Sincerest thanks to all of Software Preservation Network participants and advocates for your commitment of time and creative energy. Let’s Save Software Together.

[1] Star, S., & Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), 111-134. Retrieved from

[2] Bibliography – The Software Preservation Network. (n.d.). Retrieved November 28, 2017, from

[3] Peterson, T. H. (1984). Archival Principles and Records of the New Technology. The American Archivist, 47(4), 383–393. doi:10.2307/40292703

[4] Bearman, D. (1987a). Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives & Museums. Archives and Museum Informatics. (Archival Informatics Technical Report [August 1985].1987;1, no.2)

[5] Rothenberg, J., Commission on Preservation and Access, Council on Library and Information Resources, & Digital Libraries. (1999). Avoiding technological quicksand: finding a viable technical foundation for digital preservation : a report to the Council on Library and Information Resources. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources.

[6] Hedstrom, M., & Bearman, D. (1990). Conferences. Archives and Museum Informatics, 4(1), 10–15. doi:10.1007/BF02770069

[7] Bearman, D. (1999b). Reality and chimeras in the preservation of electronic records. D-Lib Magazine, 5(4) Retrieved from

[8] It Is What It is, Not What It Was – Henry Lowood. (2016, August 30). Retrieved November 23, 2017, from

[9] About – The Software Preservation Network. (n.d.). Retrieved November 28, 2017, from

[10] Collective Impact (SSIR). (n.d.). Retrieved November 27, 2017, from

[11] Star, S., & Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), 111-134. Retrieved from

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