Yale Library’s digital contribution will be stored in Svalbard, Norway as part of a project to protect the world’s software
Kaia Mladenova, staff illustrator
Deep in the bowels of a Svalbard coal mine, the World Arctic Archive has added a suite of digital programs from the Yale Library to its growing collection.
Yale’s library software donation – which includes Microsoft Office and Adobe Suite – is one of the latest to join the AWA. The donation’s journey from CD-ROM to storage vault is the result of a collaboration between the library’s Emulation-as-a-Service Infrastructure, or EaaSI, program and Norwegian data services company Piql. .
“This project is … a one-of-a-kind thing that we’ve done,” said Seth Anderson, EaaSI program manager at the Yale Library.
AWA was founded in 2017 by Piql to preserve digital apps, software, and data files at risk of obsolescence or physical destruction. The Yale Library EaaSI program, which aims to increase access to emulation technology within and beyond Yale, facilitated the contribution.
As part of AWA, contributions from institutions around the world are translated into bits – binary ones and zeros – on special Piql film, where they are stored in a former coal mine under carefully controlled conditions.
“We have developed this [Piql] film for many years and has really improved that,” said Katrine Loen, Piql’s deputy general manager and responsible for bringing Yale Library collections into the vault.
Piql film, coated with silver halide, contains eight million data points per frame and can withstand stretching, scratching and nuclear radiation, making it an ideal medium for AWA contributions. Movies “can last 1,000 years,” according to Loen.
The finished Piql films are then placed 300 meters underground in one of Svalbard’s former coal mines, just 600 miles from the North Pole. Svalbard was created as a demilitarized zone under Norwegian sovereignty under the 1920 Treaty of Svalbard.
“It’s exciting to be included alongside…monumental projects related to the preservation of world cultural heritage,” Anderson said.
Among the archives’ growing collections are all services from GitHub, manuscripts from the Vatican Library, and a comprehensive analysis of the Taj Mahal.
Loen noted that in our time there is a need to retain large amounts of information. She also pointed out that so much information could be lost due to the threat of technological obsolescence. As storage media gradually disappear, users must transfer their data in order across the interfaces, resulting in slight data changes with each migration. What happens then is that “what is stored 100 years ago is not the same data that you get in 100 years,” Loen said.
“This is a huge problem for digital collections, and collectively for research, scholarship and science: how to maintain public access to legacy digital content that really needs its original computing environment to function properly ? […] ?” Ethan Gates, an EaaSI software preservation analyst at the Yale Library, wrote to the News.
As software and devices become obsolete, some digital products often get lost in the process of technological advancement, which can complicate the process of preserving information for future generations.
“We would like to preserve important information for humanity,” Loen said.
Since every Piql movie contains the object’s source code and file format in human-readable text, anyone in the future will be able to access it with just a computer, a light source, and a camera. 3D scans of the archives of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, for example, would allow future users to faithfully distinguish between images online to find the original work.
Piql and the EaaSI program plan to continue their work to democratize information.
Loen spoke to the News about Piql’s efforts to deprivatize and “offer our services to public institutions.” The group is working to become a foundation, which will ensure that the project remains under the protection of the Norwegian government and accessible to everyone.
Because “not all institutions have the money to store data,” Piql strives to open up free storage options because “important information [is not] always comparable to how much money you have,” Loen said.
As for the EaaSI program, Anderson explained that the initiative hopes to expand its reach beyond Yale and “turn the system into a service that we can offer to other institutions.” He hopes that the work of EaaSI can enable other organizations to initiate similar projects and “[ensure] accessibility of information for the future.
“We are working with a number of other universities and libraries in the United States and beyond, to help them use the platform and also explore emulation with their collections,” Gates wrote.
According to Gates, EaaSI is currently copying data from “thousands of CD-ROMs in the library’s collections”. Databases, educational software, and digital artwork — even entire Windows 2004 software, for example — are preserved through “emulation environments,” which run outdated software that modern systems might not be. able to perform, explained Anderson, which are available in the library LibGuide and open to anyone with a Yale CAS.
“What excites me about EaaSI is introducing these tools to new people and new places,” Gates wrote.
Gates further noted the nostalgia users felt when engaging in a game or program they thought was lost, describing it as “having a time machine”. It is therefore not surprising that the EaSI program was keen to contribute to AWA.
“We are so honored to have Yale University Library as a client,” Loen said. “It means a lot to us, and it shows that the university and the library are really […] innovative.”
The data stored at AWA is expected to last at least 500 years.