Do you still have some of those large 5,25” floppy discs at home? Or computer files created with an old program that doesn’t exist anymore? Then you are familiar with today’s problem: your current computer cannot cope with these old data carriers or software anymore. At large, cultural heritage institutions are facing a similar problem. But there is a solution to the rescue: emulating old computer systems usingmodern computer.
Generally speaking, there are two strategies for retaining access to data on the long term: The first is migration. It converts an old file format into a new one that can be accessed with today’s software. The second approach is emulation. With this technique a modern computer is fooled a little bit by running software that pretends to be an old computer. This way, the original file or computer program is accessed using its old native environment while still running on a new computer. The big advantage of the latter approach is that it can be applied to any digital file or program and does not introduce any changes to the original context of the information rendered on screen.
In 2009, the European project KEEP started (Keeping Emulation Environments Portable). KEEP is doing research and development into technical and legal possibilities and challenges to give long-term access to digital information using emulation. Within this project and beyond, the National Library of the Netherlands has invested significant time and money in developing new software to help achieve this goal. On 26 and 27 October 2011, the KEEP project presented its intermediate results in a workshop dedicated to professionals in the field of preservation and data management.
KEEP solutions for emulation
To transfer old computer files to a new computer environment requires knowledge about old and new hardware, software and the file format itself. Especially when dealing with large amounts of data this will become a very time consuming task. Therefore, KEEP focused on solutions to automate the required steps for accessing old digital information. First, a Transfer Tools Framework helps different files to be captured from old data carriers. Second, the Emulation Framework analyses the files and automatically seeks and configures the correct rendering environment, based on emulation, original operating system and additional applications. Finally, the Virtual Machine will ensure that any software, including the emulated environment, will remain usable, because in the end all software depends on current state-of-the art-technology. All software components are still under development, but first prototypes are available.
The KEEP project ends in February 2012. At that time, not all components mentioned above will be finished, so there is still work to be done. The KEEP project team is currently investigating how to continue work after the project’s lifetime , and how to ensure that project results will be sustainable.