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Preserving.exe Report: Toward a National Strategy for Preserving Software

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Shelved Software at the Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center

Our world increasingly runs on software. From operating streetlights and financial markets, to producing music and film, to conducting research and scholarship in the sciences and the humanities, software shapes and structures our lives.

Software is simultaneously a baseline infrastructure and a mode of creative expression. It is both the key to accessing and making sense of digital objects and an increasingly important historical artifact in its own right. When historians write the social, political, economic and cultural history of the 21st century they will need to consult the software of the times.

I am thrilled to announce the release of a new National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program report, Preserving.exe: Toward a National Strategy for Preserving Software, including perspectives from individuals working to ensure long term access to software.

Software Preservation Summit

On May 20-21 2013, NDIIPP hosted “Preserving.exe: Toward a National Strategy for Preserving software,” a summit focused on meeting the challenge of collecting and preserving software. The event brought together software creators, representatives from source code repositories, curators and archivists working on collecting and preserving software and scholars studying software and source code as cultural, historical and scientific artifacts.

Curatorial, Scholarly, and Scientific Perspectives

This report is intended to highlight the issues and concerns raised at the summit and identify key next steps for ensuring long-term access to software. To best represent the distinct perspectives involved in the summit this report is not an aggregate overview. Instead, the report includes three perspective pieces; a curatorial perspective, a perspective from a humanities scholar and the perspective of two scientists working to ensure access to scientific source code.

  • Henry Lowood, Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections at Stanford University Libraries, describes three lures of software preservation in exploring issues around description, metadata creation, access and delivery mechanisms for software collections.
  • Matthew Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, articulates the value of the record of software to a range of constituencies and offers a call to action to develop a national software registry modeled on the national film registry.
  • Alice Allen, primary editor of the Astrophysics Source Code Library and Peter Teuben, University of Maryland Astronomy Department, offer a commentary on how the summit has helped them think in a longer time frame about the value of astrophysics source codes.

For further context, the report includes two interviews that were shared as pre-reading with participants in the summit. The interview with Doug White explains the process and design of the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s National Software Reference Library. The NSRL is both a path-breaking model for other software preservation projects and already a key player in the kinds of partnerships that are making software preservation happen. The interview with Michael Mansfield, an associate curator of film and media arts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, explores how issues in software preservation manifest in the curation of artwork.

The term “toward” in the title is important

This report is not a national strategy. It is an attempt to advance the national conversation about collecting and preserving software. Far from providing a final word, the goal of this collection of perspectives is to broaden and deepen the dialog on software preservation with the wider community of cultural heritage organizations. As preserving and providing access to software becomes an increasingly larger part of the work of libraries, archives and museums, it is critical that organizations recognize and meet the distinct needs of their local users.

In bringing together, hosting, and reporting-out on events like this it is our hope that we can promote a collaborative approach to building a distributed national software collection.

So go ahead and read the report today!

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