Review: Preserving Complex Digital Objects

The following is a pre-print of a book review of Preserving Complex Digital Objects which I was invited to write for the Journal of Academic Librarianship. I wrote it in December of 2014. I keeping with everything on this site, it is not written in any kind of official capacity or role. 

delveRGBPreserving Complex Digital Objects, by Janet Delve and David Anderson, editors. Greenwich, CT: Facet Publishing , 2014.

Ensuring long term access and usability of complex digital objects is of critical importance to the future of nearly every area of arts, culture, the humanities and the sciences. With that noted, to date there is a surprisingly small amount of basic and applied research and scholarship that explicitly engages with issues in this area. To this end, the 25 essays in Preserving Complex Objects are invaluable as documentation and presentation work on this topic. With origins in a 2010 JISC funded workshop and further work funded by the European Commission the book is anchored in the UK and European context but includes a series of essays about several related projects from across the globe.

In the realm of complex digital objects, the book is particular focused on three kinds of born digital content; simulations and visualizations, software art, and gaming environments/virtual worlds. It includes essays by content creators on the significance of their objects, cultural institutions on issues in archiving these materials, discussion of tools and practices, a series of case studies and two essays on some of the significant legal issues.

From my perspective, the strongest and most valuable essays in the volume come from the section focused on practices and tools for software preservation. Many of the other essays, while interesting in their own right, read mostly as reporting out on work that was done instead of developing frameworks and material that is useful for someone actually focused on preserving a given piece of software. It is worth underscoring that “complex digital objects” is in some ways synonymous with software. Of particular interest is Neil Chue Hon of the Software Sustainability Institute’s essay “Digital preservation and curation: the danger of overlooking software” succinctly explains seven approaches to software preservation a (preserving original hardware, emulation, migration, cultivation, hibernation, depreciation and procrastination) and compares and contrasts the relative strengths and weakness of each approach for different contexts. Similarly, Brian Matthews, Arif Shaon and Esther Conway’s chapter “How do I know that I have preserved software” expands on those categories and offers some valuable initial discussion of how the community should go about assessing if what has been preserved in a given context is going to be good enough for a given set of future uses. These essays are both valuable building blocks for what should be a whole field of software preservation scholarship.

It should be noted that work in software preservation has recently picked up and that a range of recent and more U.S. focused projects in this area are not significantly discussed or considered. This is not so much a criticism, it isn’t really necessary for a book to cover the entire state of the field, but instead a note to potential readers that there is a good bit of related work that isn’t represented here. There are several significant U.S. based software preservation projects that are notably absent, the National Software Reference Library run by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, the open source JSMESS emulation platform which was recently implemented broadly by the Internet Archive and the Olive Executable Archive platform under development at Carnegie Mellon University. Similarly, recent acquisitions of software based art at MOMA and of mobile applications source code at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum are helping to move the state of the practice forward.

There remains a critical need for work on the preservation of software and other complex digital objects. To that end, this book is invaluable. With that noted, given the report like nature of this book, I think it’s audience is really the relatively small community of practice and research that is forming around the preservation of software and other complex objects. The book provides considerable insight into ongoing work in the UK and Europe more broadly. I hope that this is the first in an entire library of books to engage with these issues.