Recap: Emulation in the Archives Workshop – UVA, July 18, 2019

By Brenna Edwards

The Emulation in the Archives workshop took place at the University of Virginia (UVA) July 18, 2019, as part of Software Preservation Network’s Fostering a Community of Practice grant cohort. This one-day workshop explored various aspects of emulation in archives, from the legal challenges to access, and included an overview of what UVA is currently doing in this area. The workshop featured talks from people across departments at UVA, as well as people from the Library of Congress. In addition to the talks, there was also a chance to sign up for wireframe testing for UVA’s current access methods for emulated material in their collections. This process was optional, but people could also sign up for distance testing after the workshop if they preferred. 

The day was split into four different parts: an introduction to software preservation and emulation, including legal information; an overview of UVA’s current work in emulation; a look into the metadata for emulations and video game preservation; and considerations for access and user experience. Breaking up the day into these chunks defined a flow for the day, walking through the steps and considerations needed to emulate software and born digital materials. It also helped contain these topics, though of course certain themes and aspects kept appearing throughout the day in other presentations. 

The first portion of the day covered an introduction to software preservation and emulation, and the legal landscape. After explaining more of what Software Preservation Network’s Fostering a Community of Practice grant is, Lauren Work provided some definitions of emulation, software, and curatorial for use throughout the day. 

  • Emulation: digital technique that allows new computers to run legacy systems so older software appears the way it was originally designed
  • Software: source code, executables, applications, and other related components that are set of instructions for computers
  • Curatorial: responsibility and practice of appraising, acquiring, describing

Work then talked more about the Peter Sheeran papers, a collection from an architectural firm based in Charlottesville and the main collection for this project. As a hybrid collection, there were Computer Aided Design (CAD) files and Building Information Modeling (BIM) software included, which posed the question of what to do with it. The answer? Emulation! Since CAD/BIM files are very dependent on what version of the software and files are being used, UVA first did an inventory of what they had, down to license keys and how compatible it is with other software. To do this, they used the FCOP Collections Inventory Exercise to help guide them through what they needed to consider. They also looked at what potential troubleshooting issues and legal issues they might run into. This led nicely into the next presentation all about the legal landscape for software preservation, presented by Brandon Butler of UVA. Butler talked about copyright and the The Copyright Permissions Culture in Software Preservation and Its Implications for the Cultural Records report done by ARL, as well as the idea of fair use, which is often an underutilized solution. He also talked about digital rights management, and how groups like SPN are bringing people together to ask these questions that haven’t been asked before and working to get exemptions granted every three years to help seek permission to crack locks. Overall, he said that you should be good legally, but to do your research just to be on the safe side. 

This was followed by an overview of what UVA is currently doing. After reiterating “Access is everything” to the room, Michael Durbin demonstrated the current working pieces of their emulation system using Archivematica, Apollo, and a Curio custom display interface. He also demonstrated some of the EaaSI platform (which has a sandbox now available!] demonstrating VectorWorks files and how they might be used. Durbin then explained how UVA, in their transition to ArchivesSpace, plans to use the Digital Object function to link to the external emulation, as well as display the metadata that goes along with it. UVA also is taking into consideration the description that can’t be stored in any of UVA’s systems as of yet and how they might incorporate WikiData in the future. Next was Lauren Work and Elizabeth Wilkinson to talk about the curation workflows for software at UVA, which included a revamped Deed of Gift, as well as additional checklists and questionnaires. Their main advice was to talk with the donors early, early, early to get all the information you can, work with the donor to help make preservation and access decisions, but they  also acknowledged it is not always possible. Work and Wilkinson are still working on integrating these steps into the curation workflow at UVA, but also plan to start working more on their appraisal and processing workflows. Have thoughts on the checklist and questionnaire? Feel free to comment on their documents and make suggestions! 

After lunch, we got more into the technical side of things and talked about metadata! Elizabeth Wilkinson and Jeremy Bartczak presented on how UVA is handling archival metadata for software, including questions of how much is enough information, and if ArchivesSpace would be accommodating to this amount of description. While heavily influenced by the University of California Guidelines for Born-Digital Archival Description, they also consulted the Software Preservation Network Emulation as a Service Infrastructure Metadata Model. The result? UVA Archival Description Strategies for Emulated Software, which presents two different approaches to describing software, and UVA MARC Field Look-up for Software Description in ArchivesSpace, which has suggestions on where to put the description in ArchivesSpace. To find out information about the software, they suggested using Google, WorldCat, and Wikidata (for which Yale has created a guide). 

The second portion of this block was about description and preservation of video games, presented by Laura Drake Davis and David Gibson of the Library of Congress. The LOC has been collecting video games since they were introduced, with the first being PacMan. The copyright registry requires a description of item and some sort of visual documentation or representation of game play (a video, source code, etc.). The LOC keeps the original packaging for the game if possible, and they also collect strategy guides and periodicals related to video games. They also take source code, and  the first and last 25 pages of source code are required to be printed out and sent as documentation. Right now, they are reworking their workflows for processing, cataloging, and describing video games, working on relationships with game developers and distributors and with the LC General Counsel Office to assess risks associated with providing access to actual games, and looking into ways to emulate the games themselves. 

The final part of the day was all about access and user experience. First was Lauren Work and Elizabeth Wilkinson to talk about how UVA is considering user access to emulated environments. As of now, they plan to have reading room access only, taking into consideration staff training required to do this and the computer station requirements. They are also taking into consideration what is important about access via emulated environments, a topic discussed at the Architecture, Design, and Engineering Summit at the Library of Congress in 2017. Currently, they are doing wireframe testing with ArchivesSpace to see how users navigate through ArchivesSpace, as well as what types of information is needed for researchers, such as troubleshooting tips, links to related collections, instructions or a note about what to expect within the emulated environment, and how to cite the emulation

The final talk of the day was by Julia Kim of the Library of Congress. Kim talked about her study on user experience with born digital materials at NYU from 2014 to 2015, and compared it to Tim Walsh’s survey on the same thing at the Canadian Center for Architecture done in 2017. Kim found that there is a very fine line between researcher responsibilities and digital archivist responsibilities, users got frustrated with the slowness of the emulations, and there is a learning curve. Overall, Kim found that it’s only somewhat worth it to do emulations, but thinks the EaaSI project will help with this, as well as a lot of outreach and education on what these materials are and how to use them effectively. 

Overall, I found the workshop to be highly informative and I feel more confident considering emulations for future projects. I feel the use of shared community notes helped everyone ask for clarification without disrupting the presenters and allowed for questions to be typed out to be asked at the end. It’s also been helpful to look back on these notes, as slides and links to resources have been added by both presenters and attendees. It’s nice that there is a cohort of people out there working on this and willing to share resources and talk as needed! If you’d like to learn more about the workshop, you can visit their website here, and if you’d like to see the community notes and presentations, you can click here, with the Twitter stream here


Brenna Edwards is currently Project Digital Archivist at the Stuart A. Rose Library at Emory University, Atlanta, GA. Her main responsibility is imaging and processing born digital materials, while also researching the best tools and practices to make them available. 

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