Preserving IT Heritage in the Netherlands

Now or Never?

“It is crucial to increase attention for IT heritage in the Netherlands!” This is how Loes Peeperkorn from the Dutch Computer Heritage Foundation (SCEN) kicks-off the Nu voor Later (Now for Later) conference. Without acknowledgement of the importance of this “new heritage”, the gems – she is referring to historic computers – that have until now survived, won’t be around for future generations to experience.

Even with the deserved amount of attention and effort to preserve IT, in practice this is still a cumbersome undertaking. At least, that is what Doron Swade compellingly describes in his presentation. As an engineer, historian and curator of many exhibitions at several museums – amongst others the Science Museum, London and the Computer Museum – he explains the dilemma’s that occur while restoring/preserving historic computing machines. One of them is authenticity: What is more important: A machine that works using non-original parts, or a non-working but authentic machine? Are we misleading future generations if we use non-original parts? Swade believes it’s an ongoing process and a curator’s job to search for the balance between authenticity and the (educational) value of working machines.

A second dilemma described by Swade is the importance of human resources. The engineers and technicians who built and worked with the machines are those best qualified to restore them. We need these “committed lunatics” says Swade, since restoring these machines is a highly skilled job. Without these volunteers museums can’t afford the restoration of the machines. Unfortunately these people do not live forever, so sustainability is an important issue here. The big – and still open –question is: Can we train a new generation to work with these machines? Responding to a question from the audience about how to deal with the absence of spare machine parts, Swade states he is more worried about the disappearance of human knowledge.

The other speakers of the day mainly stresses general preservation issues like; the need for interdisciplinary collaboration, the importance of central information resources, the hidden gems and information kept by private collectors and the continuing discussion about criteria for selection. Actually, to be honest, even the compelling talk given by Swade was centered on a well known and always returning issue within the preservation of original cultural and/or technological objects: Their inevitable decay!

The Specific Nature of Computer Technology

Although the conference gave an interesting insight into the state-of-the-art of IT heritage in the Netherlands (and beyond), it somewhat failed to capture its specificity. It was mostly presented as yet another object of historical importance. Two important elements that were almost absent in the discussion; the unique ability of computers to emulate their ancestors, and the status of the software run on computers as an object of historical and cultural importance on their own.

Since (most) computers are simply machines that serve to run programs using the same binary code – zeros and ones – as a basis, they have the unique ability to emulate the workings of their ancestors as yet another program. This isn’t a particular new insight: As early as 1977 computer scientists Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg called computer technology a “metamedium” in their article “Personal Dynamic Media”. This means computers can theoretically process everything that can be, or already is, captured in binary code. Although there are still valid arguments for the preservation of the actual machines, preservation of IT heritage could be considered less dependent of the availability of the original hardware than, let’s say, analogue audio recordings.

The importance of software as (cultural) objects of interest is somewhat related. Strangely, during the conference speakers only mentioned projects, cases and issues that dealt with the preservation of historic computers. But it’s evident that software is an important part of computer culture too. Not only are they an unmistakable part of our human-computer interaction (HCI), they are also of enormous cultural value. Consider for instance how computer games have become a dominant aspect of our (popular) culture, and could hence be considered as audiovisual heritage. Because software are born digital artifacts – and the hardware needed to run it can be emulated by computers that are currently available – the arguments seem to be there to include this element of IT heritage in digital preservation schemes.

February 11th, 2009 @ Reindwardt Academy, Amsterdam (The Netherlands)

Maarten Brinkerink & Lieke Heijmans

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