Project revives old software, preserves ‘born-digital’ data

When old software becomes obsolete or deprecated, information can be lost and otherwise corrupted. Digital preservationists at Yale are trying to change that.
A pixelated image of a vintage computer, with a Windows 97 screenshot in the background.

(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

Digital preservationists at Yale University Library are building a shareable “emulation as a service” infrastructure to resurrect thousands of obsolete software programs and ensure that the information produced on them will be kept intact and made easily available for future access, study, and use.

Funded through a pair of $1 million grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the project will enable access to at least 3,000 applications, including operating systems, scientific software, office and email applications, design and engineering software, and software for creative pursuits like video editing or music composition.

Material across subjects and fields increasingly is created only in digital form, making it vital for research libraries to develop ways to preserve digital information and make it readily accessible to the public,” said Susan Gibbons, university librarian and deputy provost for collections and scholarly communication.  “Thanks to the generous support and foresight of the Sloan and Mellon Foundations, Yale University Library is helping both to establish best practices in this emerging and critically important field and to ensure that future generations of students and scholars can examine a word-processing file or electronic spreadsheet as easily as they study a book or manuscript.”

The project will establish a shareable infrastructure that provides on-demand access to old software, recreating the original software environment on a current-day device, said Euan Cochrane, the library’s digital preservation manager and the project’s principle investigator.

A few clicks in your web browser will allow users to open files containing data that would otherwise be lost or corrupted,” he said.

The emulation infrastructure will enable researchers to access any number of born-digital records, such as building designs created on computer-aided drafting software in the 1980s; a noted author’s drafts produced on an early word-processing program; or computations from a path-breaking scientific experiment stored on a CD.

Emulation as a strategy for interacting with born-digital materials has existed for years, but it hasn’t been a viable technology for libraries and other organizations to use on a large scale due to the technical expertise it requires and the cost of supporting it,” said Seth Anderson, the library’s software preservation program manager.  “We’re fortunate to receive the support of two of the world’s largest institutional philanthropies to help us to bring this technology to scale.”

Cochrane emphasized the fact that emulation ensures that files can be opened with the data intact.

We aim to reach a standard of data integrity and trust where you can take an old digital file into court as evidence and open it in the original software to be sure that nothing has been changed,” he said.

The infrastructure will be flexible and able to adapt to scenarios that may arise in the future. Other institutions will be able to adapt it to suit their unique purposes.

People and organizations will have the ability to take this service, add their own collections of software and digital materials, and integrate it into their own workflows and products to ensure their born-digital information is preserved,” Anderson said.

The project is scheduled for completion in June 2020. The library’s preservationists are collaborating on the project with the Software Preservation Network, an association of digital preservationists committed to ensuring long-term access to software. They will also work with OpenSLX, a firm that is widely considered a leading developer of the technology underpinning the shareable infrastructure the library is building.


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