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What are We Going to do About Hardware?

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On May 20-21, 2013, the Library of Congress hosted one in its series of small invitational digital content at-risk summits, this one on the topic of software preservation. “Preserving.exe: Toward a National Strategy for Preserving Software” covered a wide range of topics around software preservation, every type of software and interactive media art and engaged multiple communities from software creators to curators. Details on the meeting are here.

Vintage TRS-80, photo by Leslie Johnston
Vintage TRS-80, photo by Leslie Johnston

While there will be later posts and detailed reports from the meeting, there was one topic that I kept considering and that came up at two other conferences that I attended this week:  hardware preservation.  I have long been part of the camp that was in favor of building collections of hardware, in part because I have seen the necessity of doing so for audio and video collections, where such hardware is vital for the replay of media for researchers or for digitization.  While I have seen successful emulation projects, it seemed like a dream that we could potentially build so many emulators.

This week I had my mind changed.

It was really brought home for me the astonishing extent of hardware and lower level software infrastructure we would have to locate, restore, and keep running to run the application software needed to provide access to content files in our collections. It is a daunting task, and colleagues at institutions where they do collect hardware provided a reality check at this meeting as to what it takes.

I saw or heard about some exceptionally successful emulation projects this week.  We were given a brief sneak peek at pilot for the Olive Executable Archive from Carnegie Mellon University, and were witness to fully playable Virtual Machines of games.  The Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator is so successful a project, that, after 10 years, they have a short list of the games they cannot emulate.  New York Public Library has been testing interactive visualizations of theatrical lighting design that run using files that are part of their Theatrical Lighting Database.  The emscripten project provides a robust framework for emulation in the browser.

For some more recent and common environments–as well as common media format readers–we will almost certainly need to keep hardware running in our organizations to assist us in making preservation copies of media and files that we receive as part of our collection building. And we will need to provide such hardware in our reading rooms. There is a need. But I was convinced this week that emulation may serve our needs better than hardware, except for the need to read the media in our collections to preserve their content.

We cannot all become museums of computer hardware. There are wonderful organizations like the Computer History Museum, the National Museum of Computing, the Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum, and the Centre for Computing History that serve that purpose well.  And none of this diminishes my feeling that hardware should be collected and preserved.  These are artifacts from our computing history. They are examples from the history of industrial design. They are part of my (and other’s) personal histories. When we display vintage hardware and media at our personal digital archiving events, they always attract a crowd and elicit many personal stories that help us engage with visitors about the management of their digital files. For all of those reasons I will continue to be an advocate for hardware preservation, but with a different endgame than I had in mind at the beginning of the week.

Comments (4)

  1. Agree 100%. Emulation (especially as a service) is far more feasible for smaller institutions that lack in-house expertise or staff bandwidth for collecting and maintaining hardware.

    That being said – the fact is that we can not evaluate the fidelity of an emulation without direct access to documentation of the original hardware in a functional state. Most emulation projects leading the way today are maintained by experts that are intimately familiar with the platforms and their subtleties, and so are able to judge fidelity based on their own connoisseurship. I agree that collecting and documenting platforms and execution should not rest on the shoulders of the collecting institutions, but I think it is justification for the need for labs such as Lori Emerson’s MAL, MITH’s vintage machine collection, and Nick Montfort’s Trope Tank. It warrants mention that functional hardware is not the primary mandate of most computing museums (except of course for the Living Computer Museum). As well, the fact that only about 5 people in the room knew what a Kryoflux is spoke volumes. This all leads me to think that collecting institutions need a place that they can outsource recovery and “authentic” documentation of obsolescent born digital materials to – just as such labs exist for obsolete and aging AV materials.

    This is all to say – yes to emulation, but we need to ensure sure that we have sufficient evidence for evaluating the fidelity of such tools when the connoisseurs are no longer with us.

    The summit was fantastic. Thank you for bringing such a dynamic group together. Looking forward to seeing the publication.

  2. Good question!

    In an ideal world, the original hardware, software and media would be preserved together. Practically, this is tricky and expensive. I’m in favour of a hybrid approach, an emulator housed inside the original casing. This way the user experience is preserved without the near impossible task of finding and maintaining old machines.

  3. @ Jim – agree. The hybrid approach is pretty effective & means less to maintain. We used this strategy for the NYC 1993 exhibition at the New Museum. The login screen of The Thing BBS (see here: was running in DosBox on a Mac Mini, shown on a 1993 vintage CTX brand CRT monitor.

  4. +1 to both the original post and the need for hybrid solutions.

    I’ll add to Ben’s comment only insofar as I think that emulators as a service are a fantastic idea, but we must be careful to assign multiple nodes of responsibility for preserving a master over time and managing integration with browser upgrades. There is also a strong case for good, public, shared, free documentation of significant characteristics of particular technical environments so curators/archivists/librarians can have a checklist against which to measure the success of rendering their collections.

    Finally, much of the work creating emulators is outside of the library/archives community right now. We need to improve at communicating our needs and demonstrating that the innovators in emulation (digital humanists, gamers, etc) have a stake in the preservation of cultural memory.

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