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Museum Creates Digital Archive of Computer History

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Courtesy of Computer History Museum

IBM dominated computing in 1961, with about two-thirds of the American market.

Scholars poring over medieval manuscripts or ancient stone tablets can still read what scribes set down hundreds or even thousands of years ago. But today, we're generating billions of bits of digital data that could become obsolete and indecipherable within just a few years. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View is creating a Digital Repository to preserve its vast collection and ensure its accessibility to the public for generations.

For two decades, the museum has been acquiring historic software and now holds the largest collection of existing software from the mainframe and minicomputer eras.

"I like to think of us as the Vatican of computing," says the Museum’s Senior Curator Dag Spicer. "We are the holders of some of the most sacred texts in the history of computing and many of those texts are in electronic form. So it behooves us to care for those as much as a conservator would care for a papyrus scroll."

But unlike those scrolls, the shelf life of digital content is very short. And the museum has 20,000 unique software items stored on media ranging from paper tape to hard disk drives.

One problem is the physical decay of the media itself. But even more important is the speed at which technology changes.

"We need to have the hardware," says Director of Collections Paula Jabloner. "We need to have the operating system," We need to have the application. We need to have the knowledge base that describes what the intended purpose was, that this was a database and this is how a database operates."

As an example, a shoebox of 50-year-old photos are easy to view. Not so with a shoebox of 10-year-old floppy disks. New computers don't have floppy drives and many of the files may have been created with applications that are no longer available. For an institution like the Computer History Museum, that problem becomes critical.

Thanks to a $500,000 grant from Google, Jabloner says museum staff will spend the next year copying the original data from defunct storage formats and developing an infrastructure and process for routinely copying the digital content onto newer, more stable formats. It's a complex task, but one that would excite nearly any computer geek -- extracting the original bit stream of ones and zeros, and then converting it all into readable files such as written documents, images and spreadsheets. At the same time, the museum will develop ongoing procedures for migrating that content into formats Jabloner calls "preservation worthy." And those formats will be constantly updated overtime so files remain readable.

Jabloner says this is just the beginning baby steps of the project, and there are still questions to be answered. For instance, native digital files often contain hyperlinks, macros scientific data sets and other dynamic interactive content. Jabloner says she'd love to have an answer to how to preserve those relationships, but it's still too early in the project to talk about how those to convert those features into the Digital Depository.

"It's definitely on our agenda," she says.

The Computer History Museum isn't the only organization working on this issue. A number of large institutions, including the Library of Congress, the British National Archive, MIT and Stanford have similar projects in the works. Jabloner hopes that as a relatively small institution, the museum could use its expertise to encourage smaller organizations to take up this challenge.

Associate Director Laura Nachison says there’s a definite sense of urgency to the project.

"Without the Computer History Museum to both acquire and collect and then engage in the process of preserving the material that’s on there and then making it available to the public, it would be gone," she says.

Nachison says the project is not just archival, but educational. She says it’s important to harness the tools of the information age to make the material as accessible as possible to the greatest number of people. Once the digital repository is in place, it will be a relatively easy step for the museum to share its collections with the public online.



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