Software Preservation Network: Prospects in Software Preservation Partnerships

By Karl-Rainer Blumenthal

This is the fourth post in our series on the Software Preservation Network 2016 Forum.
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Software Preservation Network logoTo me, the emphases on the importances of partnership and collaboration were the brightest highlights of August’s Software Preservation Network (SPN) Forum at Georgia State University. The event’s theme, “Action Research: Empowering the Cultural Heritage Community and Mapping Out Next Steps for Software Preservation,” permeated early panels, presentations, and brainstorming exercises, empowering as they did the attending stewards of cultural heritage and technology to advocate the next steps most critical to their own goals in order to build the most broadly representative community. After considering surveys of collection and preservation practices, and case studies evocative of their legal and procedural challenges, attendees collaboratively summarized the specific obstacles to be overcome, strategies worth pursuing together, and goals that represent success. Four stewards guided us through this task with the day’s final panel of case studies, ideas, and a participatory exercise. Under the deceptively simple title of “Partnerships,” this group grounded its discourse in practical cases and progressively widened its circle to encompass the variously missioned parties needed to make software preservation a reality at scale.

Tim Walsh (@bitarchivist), Digital Archivist at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), introduced the origins of his museum’s software preservation mission in its research program Archaeology of the Digital. Advancing one of the day’s key motifs–of software as environment beyond mere artifact–Walsh explained that the CCA’s ongoing mission to preserve tools of the design trades compels it to preserve whole systems environments in order to provide researcher access to obsolete computer-assisted design (CAD) programs and their files. “There are no valid migration pathways,” he assured us; rather emulation is necessary to sustain access even when it is limited to the reading room. Attaining even that level of accessibility required CCA to reach license agreements with the creators/owners of legacy software, one of the first, most foundational partnerships that any stewarding organization must consider. To grow further still, these partnerships will need to include technical specialists and resource providers beyond CCA’s limited archives and IT staff.

Aliza Leventhal (@alizaleventhal), Corporate Librarian/Archivist at Sasaki Associates, confronts these challenges in her role within a multi-disciplinary design practice, where unencumbered access to the products of at least 14 different CAD programs is a regular need. To meet that need she has similarly reached out to software proprietors, but likewise cultivated an expanding community of stewards in the form of the SAA Architectural Records Roundtable’s CAD/BIM Taskforce. The Taskforce embraces a clearinghouse role for resources “that address the legal, technical and curatorial complexities” of preserving especially environmentally-dependent collections in repositories like her own and Walsh’s. In order to do so, however, Leventhal reminded us that more definitive standards for the actual artifacts, environments, and documentation that we seek to preserve must first be established by independent and (inter-)national authorities like International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the National Institute of Building Sciences, and yet unfounded organizations in the design arts realm. Among other things, after all, more technical alignment in this regard could enable multi-institutional repositories to distribute and share acquisition, storage, and access resources and expertise.

Nicholas Taylor (@nullhandle), Web Archiving Service Manager at Stanford University Libraries, asked attendees to imagine a future SPN serving such a role itself–as a multi-institutional service partnership that distributes legal, technical, and curatorial repository management responsibilities in the model of the LOCKSS Program. Citing the CLOCKSS Archive and other private networks as a complementary example from the realms of digital images, government documents, and scholarly publications, Taylor posited that such a partnership would empower participants to act independently as centralizing service nodes, and together in overarching governance. A community-governed partnership would need to meet functional technical requirements for preservation, speak to representative use cases, and, critically, articulate a sustainable business model in order to engender buy-in. If successful though, it could among other things consolidate the broader field’s needs to for licensing and IP agreements like CCA’s.

In addition to meeting its member organizations’ needs, this version of SPN, or a partnership like it, could benefit an even wider international community. Ryder Kouba (@rsko83), Digital Collections Archivist at the American University in Cairo, spoke to this potential from his perspective on the Technology and Research Working Group of UNESCO’s PERSIST Project. The project has already produced guidance on selecting digital materials for preservation among UNESCO’s 200+ member states. Its longer term ambitions, however, include the maintenance of the virtual environments in which members’ legacy software can be preserved and accessed. Defining the functional requirements and features of such a global resource will take the sustained and detailed input of a similarly globally-spanning community, beginning in the room in which the SPN Forum took place, but continuing on to the International Conference on Digital Preservation (iPres) and international convocations beyond.

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Attendees compose matrices of software preservation needs, challenges, strategies, and outcomes. Photos by Karl-Rainer Blumenthal (left) and @karirene69 (right), CC BY-NC 2.0.

The different scales of partnership thus articulated, the panelists ended their session by facilitating breakout groups in the mapping of discrete problems that partnerships can solve through their necessary steps and towards ideal outcomes. At my table, for instance, the issue of “orphaned” software–software without advocates for long-term preservation–was projected through consolidation in a kind of PRONOM-like registry to get the maintenance that they deserve from partners invested in a LOCKSS-like network. Conceptually simple as each suggestion could be, it could also prompt such different valuations and/or reservations from among just the people in the room as to illustrate how difficult the prioritization of software preservation work can be for a team of partners, rather than independent actors. To accomplish the Forum attendees’ goals equitably as well as efficiently, more consensus needed to be reached concerning the timeline of next steps and meaningful benchmarks, something that we tackled in a final brainstorming session that Susan Malsbury will describe next!

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Karl-Rainer Blumenthal is a Web Archivist for the Internet Archive’s Archive-It service, where he works with 450+ partner institutions to preserve and share web heritage. Karl seeks to steward collaboration among diversely missioned and resourced cultural heritage organizations through his professional work and research, as we continuously seek new, broadly accessible solutions to the challenges of complex media preservation.

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