Like many institutions of higher education, the University of Arizona (UA) is currently evaluating ways to mitigate the significant economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic by finding ways to cut costs across all areas of the research enterprise. These include finding operational efficiencies, focusing on strategic investments, and reducing workforce-related costs. Although preserving the cultural heritage and research outputs of the institution are important, given the harsh economic realities in the short to medium term, it is difficult to present software preservation activities as critical, especially against a backdrop of potential health impacts and a sombre economic outlook directly affecting livelihoods. However, not all is lost. We can use this opportunity to highlight certain areas where future investment in software preservation work could help make the work of preserving and emulating software a more resilient endeavor in the face of adversity.
In our recent paper entitled “Sustaining Software Preservation Efforts Through Use and Communities of Practice” which I presented at IDCC 2020, we outlined how we approached addressing the issue of labor for software preservation by using the notion of “preservation-through-use” to drive community interest in software preservation and to connect groups of individuals with disparate backgrounds to seed self-sustaining communities. Although we achieved initial success in seeding the community (e.g., through events such as a Research Bazaar), the current pandemic has exposed a critical weakness in this approach: the reliance on groups of individuals coming together. A self-sustaining group needs to be able to interact on a personal level not only to solve problems but also for group cohesion and to attract new members. In order for those kinds of social interactions to happen, people need to be able to meet each other face-to-face. Virtual meetings are a less-than-ideal substitute for the kind of social interaction needed to build and sustain such communities. In the context of the FCoP project at the University of Arizona, this means that the effort put into community building and outreach efforts may be lost the longer the pandemic continues. I believe this presents an incentive to build a longer-term strategy for a more resilient network of software preservation professionals. One way to move in this direction is for funders to consider supporting applied software preservation projects that focus on “doing” preservation as a way to educate while at the same time, furthering work in preserving software artifacts deemed important. In other words, funders may consider focusing on projects geared towards preserving specific software artifacts, including those in scientific domains (software preservation in science would support increased research reproducibility. By increasing the software preservation skills of a broader set of individuals, this approach would contribute to building a more robust set of practitioners able to solve real-world software preservation problems. Existing investments in educational, community, and technical resources (e.g., FCoP project, EaaSI) can be leveraged to begin building a stronger, distributed, pool of practitioners with the technical skills and real-world know-how to preserve a wide range of software artifacts. In essence, this would serve to make software preservation practices common knowledge within the digital preservation community and beyond.
Such a broadening of skills within the relevant communities in the academic, memory institution, and non-profit workforce would only help institutions in the face of budget cuts. At UA, one way the impacts of COVID-19 will almost certainly be felt over the next 6-12 months is in staffing shortages due to furloughs and hiring freezes. As a result, it is likely that the software preservation activities coordinated by the UA FCoP team will transition to an indefinite hiatus. Therefore, as the FCoP project wraps up at UA, the goal of the UA FCoP team is to ensure that the work done to this point is not lost. To ensure this, the main thrust is documenting our activities including outreach on software preservation as well as work developing a prototype workflow for using emulation to preserve video games at the UA-based Learning Games Initiative Research Archive. As these are finalized, the documents intended for public consumption will be made available through channels established by the FCoP coordinators. One notable resource that is already public and may be of immediate use to the community is the collection of materials we prepared for meetings of the UA Software Preservation Interest Group (UA-SPIG). UA-SPIG was founded as part of the FCoP work at UA and the materials include meeting notes as well as presentations, including two introductory presentations we developed specifically to break down disciplinary barriers and build common understanding of what software preservation is and the current practice of how to do it: Software Preservation 101 and Preservation and Emulation Technologies Best Practices. It is our hope that once a certain level of normality returns, we can rely on this documentation to pick up our activities where we left off or pass the torch to others.