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Considering Emulation for Digital Preservation

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There was a week in January 2014 where I participated in three meetings/events where emulation came up as a digital preservation solution. Emulation has really hit its stride, 20 years after I first heard about it.

An emulator is an environment that imitates the behavior of a computer or other electronic system.  In recent years, this has come to be known as a Virtual Machine, which is a recreated computer environment — from the operating system to the video drivers and software — that can be run in an interactive manner using current technology, including a web browser in some instances.

ASCII keyboard emulator for Apple I Replica, flickr user llemarie, some rights reserved.
ASCII keyboard emulator for Apple I Replica, flickr user llemarie, some rights reserved.

I was very much the fan of collecting hardware for digital preservation, until I participated in the Library of Congress Preserving.exe meeting in May of 2013. I wrote about my own conversion to Team Emulation in an earlier post on this blog., and my colleague Bill Lefurgy responded to my post with a post of his own.  (That said, we still need vintage hardware to read older media to bring operating systems and software into emulation environments.)

I am again going to refer to the Olive Executable Archive from Carnegie Mellon University, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and the emscripten project.  I would also like to point out recent advances by the bwFLA project out of the University of Freiburg, which has reached the demo stage of its Emulation As A Service. I saw an impressive live demonstration of this project at CurateGear 2014.  For some background,  Dirk von Suchodoletz was interviewed here on The Signal in 2012.  And I cannot leave out the remarkable work by the JSMESS project to emulate computing and game environments in a browser environment porting the MESS Emulator to JavaScript.

There are a few key articles on this topic:

  • Granger, Stewart. “Emulation as a Digital Preservation Strategy.” D-Lib Magazine 6.19 (2000).
  • Guttenbrunner, Mark, and Andreas Rauber. “A measurement framework for evaluating emulators for digital preservation.” ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS) 30.2 (2012): 14.
  • Rechert, Klaus, Dirk von Suchodoletz, and Randolph Welte. “Emulation based services in digital preservation.” Proceedings of the 10th annual joint conference on Digital libraries. ACM, 2010.
  • Rothenberg, Jeffrey. “The Emulation Solution.” Avoiding Technological Quicksand: Finding a Viable Technical Foundation for Digital Preservation. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 1998. Council on Library and Information Resources.
  • Van der Hoeven, Jeffrey, Bram Lohman, and Remco Verdegem. “Emulation for digital preservation in practice: The results.” International journal of digital curation 2.2 (2008): 123-132.

Don’t let some of the early dates fool you – this issue was debated in just as lively a way 15 years ago as it is now.

Comments (2)

  1. An interesting post Leslie. Personally, I’m still in two minds about the viability of emulation. But I don’t want to get into a long discussion of issues that have been discussed at length previously. I do want to add a reference to a key D-Lib article by David Bearman which is a valuable corrective to the rather wide-eyed (and one-eyed) enthusiasm for emulation in Rothenberg’s 1998 piece:
    Bearman, David, “Realities and chimeras in the preservation of electronic records”, D-Lib Magazine 5.4 (1999).

  2. Emulation is a great adjunct to digital preservation but is not preservation of the original code and/or code image. We need
    1. the original medium stabilized
    2. the original code transferred to current media
    3. a few machines preserved that can read the original code from its native medium and execute it
    4. Modern emulators that read the original code and automatically translate it to a current executable format
    5. New code that presents the original look and feel of the original but may not be directly derived from it

    Call me a purist – anything less that all 5 forms loses something. Now, is there anybody out there who agrees with me strongly enough to fund this whole process? We’re working on it at

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