A Response to "Preserving
Software: Why and How"
Charles Babbage Institute
13 September 2002
of software for historical research has been a matter of interest
for archivists, librarians, and museum professionals who specialize
in the history of computing for quite some time now. Throughout
the 1980s and 1990s, a series of reports, conferences, and individual
efforts by institutions including the Charles Babbage Institute,
the Smithsonian Institution, the Computer Museum, and the National
Archives brought stakeholders in software history together to
try to understand the potential research value of this material
and attempt to identify viable approaches for addressing its
A brief timeline of just a few of these efforts may help to
put the topic in perspective.
- In 1986, the Computer Museum (in Boston, the forerunner
of the current Computer History Museum in Moffett Field,
California) commissioned an electronic records researcher,
David Bearman, to conduct a study on the topic; the product
was a report, "The Concept of a Software Archive: Planning
for a Software Archive." Bearman's report articulated
the issues that have by now become familiar (selection,
preservation, institutional framework, copyright issues,
potential users) and concluded that the museum should conduct
two additional studies before proceeding along this path.
- In 1988, the Library of Congress established a "Machine-Readable
Collections Reading Room" which maintained obsolete
hardware in order to serve the needs of anyone interested
in studying the design, history, and documentation of software
and data files. Among the goals of this pioneering project
were to determine best practices for selecting, cataloging,
and making accessible microcomputer programs and data files.
The project was abandoned within a few years; its low usage
could not be balanced with the expense of running and maintaining
the hardware. [end of page 1]
- In 1990, Columbia University held a two-day symposium titled
"Preservation of Microcomputer Software," which
brought together historians, archivists, librarians, computer
scientists and examined strategies for funding a software
archives, along with issues of selection, description, and
- In 1993, a "First National Software Archives Conference"
was held in Seattle and jointly organized by Apple Computer,
Microsoft Corporation, and the Smithsonian Institution. Invitees
included representatives from professional associations (the
Association of Records Managers and Administrators, the Society
of American Archivists, the IEEE); major government agencies
(the National Archives, the Library of Congress); a variety
of universities (Yale, Stanford, MIT, the Universities of
California, Michigan, and Washington); and the software industry
(including Adobe, Cray, IBM, Lotus, Novell, Sun, Xerox).
These efforts were all well-conceived; in retrospect, their
work was remarkable. Organizers and participants at these meetings
recognized, commendably, that any effort to preserve software
for historical research would have to be collaborative and consortial.
No one person or institution could do it alone. They recognized
that stakeholders from industry, academia, and the information
professions, had to be involved, and that a wide range of expertise
was needed. They also recognized that major institutional backing
from all of these spheres would be critical.
Yet despite all of this effort, expertise, and institutional
support, and despite some significant smaller advances, no national
software archives has been established, and there does not appear
to be one on the horizon.
What conclusions can we draw from these efforts? In retrospect,
it seems that two fundamental issues could not be satisfactorily
addressed. First, while all participants agreed that software
history is important, that awareness of it should be raised,
and that it must be documented, participants simply could not
identify a solid user base of any justifiable proportion. Second,
as participants stated over and over again, "preserving
software" is much more than an act of accumulation. It
means conserving, organizing, researching, cataloging, and presenting
the materials in ways that researchers can use. To do otherwise
is simply hoarding. And no individual institution or consortium
of institutions has been able to balance these two issues.
Since then, institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Charles
Babbage Institute, and Stanford University have focused efforts
on collecting not the software itself, but its documentary recordwhich
may include catalogs and directories, personal papers, business
records, oral histories and audiovisual materials. All of these
documentary manifestations can be stored, described, and made
available to scholars according to established standardsnot
cheaply, but with the normal expenses associated with the archival
enterprise. [end of page 2]
In a recent issue of Annals of the History of Computing,
David Grier summarized a discussion that had occurred
at "Mapping the History of ComputingSoftware Issues,"
an international conference held in Paderborn, Germany, at
the Heinz Nixdorf Museums Forum in 2000. "Exactly how
does one go about preserving software?" Grier asked.
To operate software . . . one needs an operational
machine. To keep some of the old computers is beyond the scope
of most museums' capabilities and beyond the interest of all
but a few. Equally impracticable is the task of writing software
simulationsprograms that would allow old programs to
run on new machines.
Grier, a noted historian computing himself, continued that
"software code, though occasionally interesting, will eventually
be of use only to the most dedicated scholar who masters the
arcana of languages long forgotten and machines unable to function."
For the historian, Grier concluded, preserving the documentation
of software development " is an imperfectbut thus
far the only economically viablesolution." Given the source
of this statement, and after examining the effort that
has gone before, it is hard to justify more.
IEEE Annals of the History of Computing,
vol. 23, no. 2 (April-June 2001), p. 68.
Editor's Note: The revised transcript of "Mapping
the History of ComputingSoftware Issues," an international
conference held in Paderborn, Germany, at the Heinz Nixdorf
MuseumsForum in 2000 has just been published: Ulf Hashagen,
Reinhard Keil-Slawik, and Arthur Norberg, eds., History
of Computing: Software Issues (Berlin: Springer-Verlag,
2002). [end of page 3]
Elisabeth Kaplan, "A Response to 'Preserving
Software: How and Why,'" Iterations: An Interdisciplinary
Journal of Software History 1 (September 13, 2002): 1-3.
Back to Top
| Table of Contents | CBI