Public libraries aren't archives

April 22nd, 2013 12:25 PM
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Filed under History, Software showcase;
8 comments.

I ardently support public libraries: I consciously opt to get my movies from their collections rather than Netflix, so as to increase their circulation numbers and thus their budget; I've written letters to the editor in support of these democratic institutions; I even dabbled in the education necessary to work in the field. There's little that public libraries aren't good for.

Once upon a time, libraries were even a source of Apple II software. In those days, there were so many computing platforms that it was unlikely an underfunded library would support any one, especially since computers in general were still so limited in their accessibility and penetration. But with educational institutions being one of the few that could afford such an investment, the software you were likely to find at libraries were edutainment titles such as Microzine. Even more rarely, you might find software of a more diversionary nature.

I thought that's what recently happened to me as I prepared the March issue of Juiced.GS, for which Andy Molloy submitted a review of Jordan Mechner's The Making of Prince of Persia. Curious as to the availability of this book to our readers, I did a quick search for all materials by Mechner in any public library that's recognized by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). Though I was looking for paperbacks, I was stunned to find a copy of Karateka, right here in Massachusetts!

Recycled library card catalogEver think to look for computer games at your local library?
TOO LATE NOW.

Unfortunately, though this title was listed in OCLC's WorldCat, I could not find a matching listing in the catalog specific to the holding library system, the North of Boston Library Exchange (NOBLE). I emailed a librarian to ask about the discrepancy. Assuming I didn't realize the lateness of my request, she replied:

If you look closely at the record copied below, you will see that it is a 5 1/4 disk for computer (Apple II+)! I do not believe that a library today would have any equipment able to use one of these now "prehistoric" disks!

It's disappointing but unsurprising that the library would not have kept its Apple II software on file. With the limited budget and space afforded to public libraries, they must dispose of those items with limited circulation to make room for new materials. It's doubtful anyone had requested an 8-bit 5.25" floppy disk in years, if not decades, so away it went. To where, we may never know — a good home, I hope.

Interested in locating libraries in your area that may be holding onto these artifacts? OCLC lets you conduct a search for computer files published 1977–1992, which reveals 17,759 hits. But without a means to sort by location or vicinity, finding the disks near you is hopeless. It was only by chance that I thought I'd found Karateka in my own backyard.

Libraries make available materials that the general population may never otherwise have access to. But libraries are not archives or museums. As I discovered when I archived hardcopies of Juiced.GS, there are organizations around the world who will accept such materials, from academic institutions to the Computer History Museum. These non-profits are the proper places to consider donating your historical hardware and software. But Apple II software in public libraries? It's time not to check in, but to check out.

My personal contribution to preventive archiving

February 27th, 2012 11:45 AM
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Filed under History, Musings;
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People like Mike Maginnis and Jason Scott have done a great deal to preserve the history of the Apple II. I got a taste for what it's like to contribute to that effort when I recorded KansasFest 2010, publishing dozens of videos of otherwise ephemeral experiences — but it wasn't until we lost Ryan Suenaga nearly a year ago that I realized the urgency of this work.

Ryan's passing was unexpected, and he left many people lost without him. The consequences to his friends and family make everything else seem trivial by comparison, but I had to contribute what little I could to aspects of Ryan's legacy that may otherwise go overlooked. I reconstituted RyanSuenaga.com, a domain that had expired during Ryan's lifetime but which he was too busy to maintain. Similarly, Tony Diaz purchased A2Unplugged.com, ensuring that episodes of the A2Unplugged podcast — still the most prolific Apple II podcast to date, despite not having published a new episode in nearly two years — will remain available.

In a way, it's too little, too late. We need to think about these worst-case scenarios before they happen. What does that mean for me? I don't arrogantly assume my original work will be missed, but I recognize that my primary role in the Apple II community is as a channel for other people's talents: I solicit and publish writers in Juiced.GS; I help bring people and luminaries together for KansasFest; and, with my co-host, I interview community members on Open Apple. Out of respect for the many volunteers who contribute to these outlets, I want this work to be tamper-proof while I'm alive — and continued when I'm not.

Last year, I devised a method for my digital assets to be accessed by a designated individual in the event of an emergency. It is a convoluted strategy that involves sealed envelopes, cross-country phone calls to strangers, and clues to decipher. Why I didn't simply put my passwords in a bank deposit box to which a relative has the key, I don't know. Perhaps I've watched National Treasure too many times.

But more immediately, I wanted to get data that is already publicly available into more hands, to ensure it doesn't suffer from a single point of failure. I'm relieved to have finally gotten to a point where I believe I have accomplished that goal. With help from Mike Maginnis, Steve Weyhrich, Ewen Wannop, Jeff Kaplan, and more, today marks a series of coordinated announcements:

Distribution and preservation: The benefits of an ISSN
Juiced.GS receives an ISSN from the Library of Congress and is archived by ten museums and universities around the world.
Preserving KansasFest videos: Internet Archive, iTunes, YouTube
KansasFest videos from 2009 and beyond to be made available in the Internet Archive, via an iTunes video podcast, and on YouTube.
Open Apple on the Internet Archive
Episodes of the Apple II community's only co-hosted podcast now permanently available from a 501(c)(3) online library.

Some of these developments were easily accomplished; others required hours of busy work and calling in personal favors. Some were free but for our time and energy; others cost hundreds of dollars. All were group efforts that require ongoing commitments.

The work to ensure our Apple II heritage remains available to current and future generations never ends. Let's make sure that which is unique is never lost.