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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Software Preservation Network Series

By Jessica Meyerson and Zach Vowell

This post is the first in our series on the Software Preservation Network 2016 Forum.

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Software Preservation Network logoThe Software Preservation Network (SPN) 2016 Forum was held Monday, August 1st, 2016 on the Georgia State University campus in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. The SPN 2016 Forum theme, “Action Research: Empowering the Cultural Heritage Community and Mapping Out Next Steps for Software Preservation” reflected the mission of the Software Preservation Network (SPN) — to solicit community input and build consensus around next steps for preserving software at scale as part of the larger effort to ensure long-term access to digital objects. Over the next few weeks, bloggERS will be publishing a series of posts about the Forum, written by attendees. This blog post series speaks to the core beliefs of the Software Preservation Network team:

  • Reflection is essential to our practice. Our Volunteer Blog Post Authors represent a team of Reflective Practitioners — helping us to derive and articulate insights from their embodied experience as Forum attendees and participants.  
  • The practice of critical reflection around software preservation must incorporate members from complementary domains to actively participate in a coordinated effort to develop a sustainable, national strategy for proprietary software licensing and collection — pulling heavily from the collective, embodied experience and expertise of researcher-practitioners in law, archives, libraries, museums, software development and other domains.

Community participation was key to the Forum’s success and proposals were invited on topics including:

  • Current collaborations/consortial efforts
  • Collective software licensing approaches
  • Preservation efforts
  • Emulated or virtualized access options
  • Organizational structures that have worked for other multi-institutional initiatives that may work for software preservation

Our call for proposals received an enthusiastic response — so much so, that we embarked on a happy experiment to push the conversation forward, and closer to actionable next steps. We asked our participants to scrap their original proposal and work together in teams to identify overlaps/intersections across projects AND design an activity to facilitate meaningful engagement among attendees. They all said yes — to ambiguity, to experimentation, and to dedicating more of their time and energy towards making the Forum a valuable experience. The final Forum schedule can be found here, but for a preview of what you’ll be hearing about over the course of this blog post series, below is a list of sessions and their participants:

ICE BREAKER ACTIVITY

SESSION 1 – Legal and Policy Aspects of Software Preservation

  • Henry Lowood – Stanford University
  • Zach Vowell – Software Preservation Network

SESSION 2 – Current Collecting, Processing of and Access to Legacy Software

  • Glynn Edwards – Stanford University
  • Jason Scott – Internet Archive
  • Doug White – National Software Reference Library
  • Paula Jabloner – Computer History Museum

SESSION 3 – Research and Data on Software Preservation

  • Micah Altman – Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Jessica Meyerson & Zach Vowell – Software Preservation Network

BRAINSTORMING BREAK

SESSION 4 – Partnerships Forming Around Software Preservation

  • Aliza Leventhal – Sasaki Associates
  • Tim Walsh – Canadian Centre for Architecture
  • Nicholas Taylor – Stanford University
  • Ryder Kouba – The American University in Cairo

SESSION 5 – Community Roadmapping

As you read the posts in this series, if you are inspired to get involved with this growing community of dedicated colleagues, there are several ways to dive in:

  • Submit a use case. We ask, for the sake of easier analysis/comparison (finding common themes across use cases) that you follow this general structure.
  • We are scheduled to send out a version of our software preservation community roadmap on these listservs — please let us know if there are other groups of folks that might be interested.
  • Sign up to participate in the working groups that have been formed around the community roadmap.

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Zach Vowell has worked with born-digital collection material since 2007, and has served as Digital Archivist at at the Robert E. Kennedy Library, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo since 2013. At Cal Poly, he is co-primary investigator of the IMLS-funded Software Preservation Network project, and leads digital preservation efforts within Kennedy Library’s Special Collections. Zach has long recognized the need to strategically preserve software in order to provide long-term access to archival collections.

Jessica Meyerson is Digital Archivist at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin, where she is responsible for building infrastructure to support digital preservation and access. Jessica earned her M.S.I.S. from the University of Texas at Austin with specializations in digital archives and preservation. She is Co-PI on the IMLS-funded Software Preservation Network – a role that allows her to promote the essential role of software preservation in responsible and effective digital stewardship.