Involvement with the FCoP cohort has afforded and required prioritization of my attention and resources to closely engage with software preservation and emulation concerns. Our institution is steadily acquiring born-digital collections some of which include content created in complex, domain-specific and/or proprietary formats that depend upon specific software and attendant knowledge of the software environment in order to render file content accurately. 

Through the course of involvement with the FCoP project it has been made clear that the core work of software preservation and emulation is centered in digital curation. There are significant activities which require engagement from content curators and functional specialists to improve future software preservation and emulation outcomes, such as identifying and recording file creation context, and documenting key aspects of a donor’s computing environment. 

My primary objectives for future work and sustained efforts center on curation and scalability. As I work in a large public academic library with few staff dedicated to digital preservation, I have to consider and prioritize scalable efforts in order to sustain software preservation and emulation efforts. Using EaaSI as part of a curation toolkit to automate tasks is of particular interest. Specially, I would like to see further development on EaaSI’s Universal Virtual Interactor (UVI) for “automagically opening digital objects in original software” I spent a significant amount of time on verifying file types and identifying appropriate software using tools such as file format characterization and reviewing file metadata. Beyond assessing classes of files extracted from their native computing environment, I used the EaaSI platform in an unexpected way via emulating a disk image acquired from a laptop computer and using the emulated environment for content appraisal. Accessing the files ostensibly in-situ assisted in scaling efforts to render file formats as accessing the files would often launch the associated software application used to create them.

Interrogating file properties using these methods resulted in varying degrees of success, often requiring multiple tools and iterations of testing. Due to the sheer number of file formats in existence and occasional structural ambiguity or customization encountered in legacy file formats, file characterization tools such as PRONOM are often limited in the number of authoritative file format signatures they contain. Although significant collaborative efforts such as the PRONOM Research Week help in growing the functionality of these tools, a gap will likely remain between challenging file formats found in high-value local collections and authoritative records found in international file format registries. Prior to the FCoP, University of Illinois library staff had engaged in several rounds of research intended to address this knowledge gap.  Efforts to document local file format findings and decisions surrounding format management have culminated in our Digital Content Format Registry, a knowledge base for documenting local information gathered about how to identify and render challenging file formats – particularly formats that present challenges like dependency on a specific version of proprietary software. Implicit in creating our digital content format registry entries is the availability of software and emulators to run legacy software in order to accurately test hypotheses about a class of files. The Digital Content Format Registry knowledge base is one example of demonstrating the importance of software preservation and emulation to our local users as we continue to develop strategies beyond bit-level preservation.  

Once the FCoP project is complete, my intent is to focus efforts on continuing to build support for content rendering for appraisal and access. This activity will include acquiring and preserving key software, as well as working with colleagues to continue on improving our digital curation workflows, ideally addressing software preservation and emulation decision points earlier in the curation workflow and gaining more engagement from the donor at the time of appraisal and acquisition. 

In terms of my thoughts on what roles professional organizations may fill, continued support and development of the EaaSI tool as a hosted service is pivotal. Details such as membership cost, and services provided have not been established as part of the FCoP cohort group. Considering the particular uncertain economic climate that many academic institutions find themselves in April 2020, and the increasing sense of “membership fatigue” surrounding digital preservation “services for hire”, a professional organization ought to be cognizant of community readiness for the EaaSI service and offer stable, tech-supported services driven by user research data. 

Professional organizations may also continue to develop and coordinate diverse communities and guide knowledge creation and distribution. One area where I feel there is potential is in the development and coordination of communities of practice surrounding digital content creation. Creative communities such as graphic designers and music production professionals often rely on complex, proprietary software to produce their work. These experts have knowledge of the software ecosystems and various ways to output and share their work. Sometimes it is difficult to connect these experts to the professionals interested in the long-term preservation of their productions. Fostering a collaboration among these professionals would seem to be a mutually beneficial endeavor.  

Documentation produced through the course of work from the previous example could also present an additional opportunity for a professional organization to facilitate the coordination of knowledge bases and document collection around software titles. A coordinated effort to produce, collect, organize, describe, make accessible and preserve essential information surrounding software use such as manuals and brief “how-to” guidance documents could benefit from management by a national or international entity. 

Preferred citation:

Popp, Tracy. (2020, April 4). FCoP 2020 Cohort Reflections: University of Illinois. Software Preservation Network.