Our cultural gut tells we should start saving software…
You will notice how software preservation is a relatively new endeavor when you encounter a somewhat intuitive rationale that pushes the agenda. Concerning the preservation of Planetary, a visual music player developed for iPad, Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope in their 2013 “Collecting the Present: Digital Code and Collections” describe their motive as follows:
The benefits accrued by the ability for software and hardware industries to frequently “shed their skin” and start anew still outweigh the costs, and that is the landscape in which museums will continue to try and preserve objects in for the foreseeable future. To that end we see the ability and freedom for third parties to play and experiment with—to become comfortable and familiar with—Planetary’s source code as integral to any efforts to recruit developers in our preservation aims. Will some of what we see be still-born or not in line with the museum’s thinking? Probably. Will they be worth it in the long run? We choose to believe so.
Matthew Kirschenbaum in his 2013 “An Executable Past: The Case for a National Software Registry” published in “Preserving.exe” acknowledges the similar condition that currently surrounds software preservation:
For decades the Library of Congress has also been receiving computer games, and in 2006 the games became part of the collections at the Culpeper campus. But while the Library registers the copyrights, what it means to preserve and restore vintage computer games—or any kind of computer software—is less clear. As yet there is only the beginning of a national agenda for software preservation, and precious little in the way of public awareness of the issue.
So we think we should save softwares, but what exactly should we save?
Granted we take heed of the pace of software obsoletion—and our cultural practices highly shaped by the daily interactions with software—it is not difficult to imagine varying understanding of software preservation. Questions that concern archivists include: To what end do we preserve software? What is the scope of software preservation? Chan and Cope consider the functionality of the software as its utmost importance. Therefore, for Planetary, it was the features of software—“the interaction design and experience of manipulating and affecting a dynamic three dimensional system using a touchable interface”—that need to be saved and reconstructed.
For Kirschenbaum, it is the historical context in which certain software was conceived that demands documentation. With the example of Microsoft Word 2.0 released in 1991, Kirschenbaum entertains how a hidden mischievous features of “WordPerfect monster” alludes to the then ongoing rivalry between the competing word processing applications.
Henry Lowood in his “The Lures of Software Preservation” (also published in “Preserving.exe”) considers an alternative preservation method by suggesting the verification of data files. Lowood’s approach questions the “screen essentialism” (the preservation of the look of software) and encourages the preservation of software integrity by using such signatures as hashes and checksums.
Is the through-er, the better?
Despite the different emphasis on the significant property of software, one thing is for certain when considering software preservation. That is, software needs to be preserved as a whole package. The package may include, just as the case of Planetary, the software’s early versions, change logs, and bug reports. The suggestions made in Erick Kaltman et al.’s 2014 “A Unified Approach to Preserving Cultural Software Objects and Their Development Histories” go as far to include paper prototype, type of IDE, email correspondences, and interpersonal relationship, concerning the documentation related to the development of academic gaming software Prom Week. Mind you, however, while through documentation and preservation of relevant files are essential to saving software, such action calls for professional judgment and managerial strategies. In the words of Chan and Cope:
Because digital works are exist in any equally digital life-support system, or ecosystem, absent preserving the entire dependency chain for a single digital object museums need to be able to conceptualize and articulate a strategy for demonstrating some kind of tangible proof for those objects in their collection which lack the physicality typically associated with our collections.
Keep it open!
Another consensus seen among Chan and Cope and Kaltman et al. is the benefit of preserving software. Chan and Cope followed the original open source policy of Planetary and concludes its advantage for preservation as follows:
Kaltman et al. in a similar vein writes:
Most scientific progress is based on reproduction and extension of others’ work, making that work easier to access and more transparent would open up more research avenues and increase scientific output. […] The more open a platform is, the better a chance it has for migration to other systems, and the more open a development process, the easier it will be for future researchers and students to understand and further the work. (7)
The benefit of open source seems to resonate with the idealistic rationale of library. I wonder what are the potential drawbacks of this approach? If we use this rationale, do you think we can persuade the stakeholders with a growing number of software preservation? Especially, as mentioned earlier by Chan and Cope, when developing a new software is much cheaper than tinkering the existing one? Do we envision something equivalent to “a law library” or “a business library” with the collections of software?