Emulation for preservation - is it for me?

I’ve previously been of the opinion that emulation isn’t really for me.

I’ve seen presentations about emulation at conferences such as iPRES and it is fair to say that much of it normally goes over my head.

This hasn’t been helped by the fact that I’ve not really had a concrete use case for it in my own work - I find it so much easier to relate and engage to a topic or technology if I can see how it might be directly useful to me.

However, for a while now I’ve been aware that emulation is what all the ‘cool kids’ in the digital preservation world seem to be talking about. From the very migration heavy thinking of the 2000’s it appears that things are now moving in a different direction.

This fact first hit my radar at the 2014 Digital Preservation Awards where the University of Freiburg won the The OPF Award for Research and Innovation award for their work on Emulation as a Service with bwFLA Functional Long Term Archiving and Access.

So I was keen to attend the DPC event Halcyon, On and On: Emulating to Preserve to keep up to speed... not only because it was hosted on the doorstep in the centre of my home town of York!

It was an interesting and enlightening day. As usual the Digital Preservation Coalition did a great job of getting all the right experts in the room (sometimes virtually) at the same time, and a range of topics and perspectives were covered.

After an introduction from Paul Wheatley we heard from the British Library about their experiences of doing emulation as part of their Flashback project. No day on emulation would be complete without a contribution from the University of Freiburg. We had a thought provoking talk via WebEx from Euan Cochrane of Yale University Library and an excellent short film created by Jason Scott from the Internet Archive. One of the highlights for me was Jim Boulton talking about Digital Archaeology - and that wasn’t just because it had ‘Archaeology’ in the title (honest!). His talk didn’t really cover emulation, it related more to that other preservation strategy that we don’t talk about much anymore - hardware preservation. However, many of the points he raised were entirely relevant to emulation - for example, how to maintain an authentic experience, how you define what the significant properties of an item actually are and what decisions you have to make as a curator of the digital past. It was great to see how engaged the public were with his exhibitions and how people interacted with it.

Some of the themes of the day and take away thoughts for me:

  • Choosing the best strategy - It is not all about which preservation strategy to use it is more about how we can use them together - as Paul Wheatley pointed out - emulation is a good partner to migration as it can help you to test a migration strategy. The British Library showed off their lab of old hardware - they use this to check whether their emulators are working OK. As digital archivists we can (and should) use all of the tools at our disposal to make sure we are doing the job well.
  • A window of emulation opportunity? - Simon Whibley from the British Library mentioned that older material tends to emulate better than the more recent material they worked with. Later on in the day Euan Cochrane talked about the ways technology is rapidly moving forward (see for example The Internet of Things). This offers up new challenges for those working in digital preservation, whatever strategy they employ. Will there be a relatively small window of opportunity for emulation (from the 1980's to the 2000's)? Beyond that point, will it all get just too complex?
  • Software is a problem - setting up the emulation environments is easy (in that some people have this solved) but if you don’t have the necessary software to install in order to read your files then you are stuck. Obviously this is a thorny problem due to licencing and IPR and not one which has been systematically solved. The British Library have been ‘accidentally’ collecting software but this area continues to be a problematic one.
  • What constitutes an 'authentic experience'? - most of the presentations mentioned this idea of the authentic experience - ultimately this is what we are trying to provide. Simon Whibley asked whether an emulation that appears in full colour is authentic if it would have been monochrome on the original hardware? Jim Boulton mentioned that some of the artists he worked with wanted the bandwidth to be throttled on their historic websites to recreate the authentic speed (or lack of it!). Some of the emulators demonstrated over the course of the day also provided the original sounds of the operating system and this is an important element in providing an authentic experience. It isn't just about serving up the data.
Thinking about how this all relates to me and my work, I am immediately struck by two use cases.

Firstly research data - we are taking great steps forward in enabling this data to be preserved and maintained for the long term but will it be re-usable? For many types of research data there is no clear migration strategy. Emulation as a strategy for accessing this data ten or twenty years from now needs to be seriously considered. In the meantime we need to ensure we can identify the files themselves and collect adequate documentation - it is these things that will help us to enable reuse through emulators in the future.

Secondly, there are some digital archives that we hold at the Borthwick Institute from the 1980's. For example I have been working on a batch of WordStar files in my spare moments over the last few years. I'd love to get a contemporary emulator fired up and see if I could install WordStar and work with these files in their native setting. I've already gone a little way down the technology preservation route, getting WordStar installed on an old Windows 98 PC and viewing the files, but this isn't exactly contemporary. These approaches will help to establish the significant properties of the files and assess how successful subsequent migration strategies are....but this is a future blog post.

It was a fun event and it was clear that everybody loves a bit of nostalgia. Jim Boulton ended his presentation saying "There is something quite romantic about letting people play with old hardware".

We have come a long way and this is most apparent when seeing artefacts (hardware, software, operating systems, data) from early computing. Only this week whilst taking the kids to school we got into a conversation about floppy disks (yes, I know...). I asked the kids if they knew what they looked like and they answered "Yes, it is the save icon on the computer"(see Why is the save icon still a floppy disk?)...but of course they've never seen a real one. Clearly some obsolete elements of our computer history will remain in our collective consciousness for many years and perhaps it is our job to continue to keep them alive in some form.

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist


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