Collecting Software: Preserving Information in an Object-Centred Culture

  • Doron Swade


Museums are part of an object-centred culture. Their essential justification is the acquisition, preservation and interpretation of physical artefacts. Physical objects, their meaning, significance and their care, dominate a curator’s professional psyche. One of the first tasks, then, is to locate computer software in the artefactual landscape. Computer hardware, as a category of object, is seemingly unproblematic. It is the physical stuff of computer systems and falls painlessly into the custodial universe of conventional object-centred curatorship. Curators acquiring monitors, keyboards, systems boxes, disk drives and printers would be seen as going about their normal business in an unremarkable way. Software, a term in general use by the early 1960s, is usually defined negatively—that is to say, a component of computer systems distinct from hardware. The Oxford Dictionary of Computing 2 defines software as “a generic term for those components of a computer system that are intangible rather than physical”. Prentice Hall’s Illustrated Dictionary of Computing” irreversibly severs the material link by noting that “software is independent of the carrier used for transport”. The non-material features of software have ominous implications. The Science Museum’s Corporate Plan for 1992–74 states that one of the Museum’s core objectives is to “acquire the most significant objects as physical evidence of science worldwide”. Here physical objects are explicitly identified as the evidentiary medium. We have a prima facie conflict.


Science Museum Floppy Disk Magnetic Medium Artefactual Software Preserve Information 
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  1. 1.
    This paper is an edited version of a book chapter: “Preserving Software in an Object-Centred Culture,” in History and Electronic Artefacts, ed. Edward Higgs (Oxford, 1998), 195–206. Acknowledgements: Illustrations (Pegasus computer, two simulation screens) are reproduced with the permission of the Science Museum.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The Oxford Dictionary of Computing (Oxford, 1986), 352.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Jonar C. Nader, ed., Illustrated Dictionary of Computing (New York, 1992), 412.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    National Museum of Science and Industry, Corporate Plan 1992–1997: The Next Five Years (London, 1992).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See T. Day, “Sound Archives and the Development of the BIRS,” Recorded Sound, The Journal of the BIRS 80 (July 1981); Ivan Butler, To Encourage the Art of the Film: The Story of the British Film Institute (London, 1971).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Jeff Rothenberg, “Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents,” Scientific American (January 1995).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Thirty-year old magnetic tapes have been successfully read at the Science Museum, London. The 35 mm tapes were created on an Elliott 803 discrete component germanium transistor computer dating from 1963. This computer was restored to working order and original tape stock read on the original hardware. The tapes, stored in metal canisters, were stowed in an unregulated garage environment for many years without any special conservation measures taken. In the PC context, material written to floppy disks over ten years ago is commonly still usable.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Aspects of these issues are treated in “Collecting Software: A new Challenge for Archives and Museums,” in Archival Informatics Newsletter and Technical Report 1/2, ed. David Bearman (Pittsburgh, Pa., Archives and Museum Informatics, August 1987).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Gunnar Thorvaldsen, formerly with the Norwegian National Archives, reports on integrity checks on archived tapes being carried out every two years and routine transfer to new tape stock every five years. See idem, “The Preservation of Computer Readable Records in Nordic Countries,” History and Computing 4/3 (1992).Google Scholar
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    Doron Swade, “Napoleon’s Waistcoat Button: Modern Artifacts and Museum Culture,” Museum Collecting Policies in Modern Science and Technology (London, 1991);Google Scholar
  11. 10a.
    Doron Swade, “Virtual Objects: Threat or Salvation?” in Museums of Modern Science, ed. Svante Lindqvist (Canton MA, 2000): 139–47.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Doron Swade
    • 1
  1. 1.Science MuseumNational Museum of Science & IndustryLondonUK

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