Public libraries aren’t archives

Filed under History, Software showcase;

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?

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.

  1. Steve Sarrica says:

    The University of Michigan Library has a Computer and Video Game Archive with a dedicated librarian (David Carter) working to preserve as much of this historical material as he can. He got some (virtual) ink recently:

    the official web page is here:

    David has told me that they are strong in most areas, but their Apple II hardware and software collection is a bit weak. If I ever get my Apple II stuff sorted out, I plan on making some donations…

  2. Steve Sarrica says:

    The archive has a Facebook page here:

  3. I hope that copy of Karateka went to a good home, but I’m afraid a dumpster is more likely based on my own limited experience. I know that lending libraries have limited resources and need to make space for newer books, but it still seems a shame that so much older material is just discarded. When I was growing up, some of my favorite library books were “outdated” technical books that described not what was happening, but instead speculated about what might happen in the future. Those particular books were long ago discarded, sadly.

  4. Never would have thought to search a library for computer games! I’m scared to think where programs go once they’re obsolete…

  5. Maybe someone checked it out and never returned it.

  6. I used to sit in my local NOBLE library’s archives room for hours and hours reading back issues of Nibble magazine. One day they discarded them–I grabbed them all and still have them.

  7. Nice write up. I remember dialing into the local public library at 1200 baud to access their CARL system to find copies of Apple II manuals that weren’t available at my local Egghead Software store. I stumbled across all sorts of interesting Apple II titles browsing around that way.

  8. I search for “Apple II” in almost every library I visit. Occasionally, a larger city library will still have a few titles, which I checkout to give the circulation numbers a small boost. But, most libraries have nothing remotely related — although I expect this, I’m always disappointed when I remember how public libraries used to have so many books and disks.