Imagine that the world has gone dark. No light, no electricity. We would be unable to see, to read. We would lose access to knowledge, to the records of our history, to our cultural and scientific memory. We would have to start from the beginning, retracing the centuries of carefully taken steps, and repeating many of them, including the ones that led to blind alleys.
In the digital age, this is precisely what UNESCO’s PERSIST Programme wants to avoid: the “darkness” that ensues when the software we use stops functioning. Because without software the data, the content, the images, the calculations, all sink into darkness. And we, humans, cannot “see digital” without software programmes.
PERSIST reduces the risk of “digital blindness” by extending the use of software in time. It is setting up a PERSIST Software Foundation to ensure that the software continues to run in the future and be the “light” that we need to see digital.
The need to use obsolete software is shared by all memory institutions, including national libraries and archives around the World. Most of them have their own obsolete software deposits and their technical staff installs the software that is critically needed. Spending the same effort by different institutions is not very efficient from different viewpoints:
1. Legal: Each institution must obtain licenses for old software from the software vendors.
2. Technology: Old software requires a “computational environment” (the operating system) in which it can function and access files. As computers and operating systems evolve, the old systems disappear. And the new systems cannot interpret the commands of the old software. Thus, ICT specialists must create special programs – called emulators and virtual machines – to serve as “translators” between old and new computers and operating systems.
3. Economics: Efforts of ICT specialists cost money. Creating special programs for each institution separately is not an efficient way of dealing with legacy software (obsolete software), especially when the number of software products is constantly increasing.
PERSIST aims to help memory institutions to address their needs by using the common PERSIST platform to share:
1. ICT licenses which can be done by depositing old software in one global UNESCO PERSIST Software Foundation.
2. ICT capacity (specialists and server space) to keep the old software owned by the PERSIST Software Foundation running.
3. Services that make both the legacy software platform and the memory institutions’ efforts economically sustainable.
In this early stage, the PERSIST Software Foundation must raise funds to pay for the ICT capacity and set itself up as a fully functional enterprise with the goal to:
1. Identify and grow the population of users who need to access old files (memory institutions, companies, universities, citizens, etc.).
2. Identify services that customers would need (for example, an “app store” for obsolete software versions).
3. Establish a business model to create revenue and sustain the services.
To discuss these steps, Prof. Natasa Milic-Frayling, the Chair of the PERSIST Technology and Research Workgroup, recently met with Tristan Müller, the Director of Digitalization of the National Library and Archives of Quebec (BAnQ) and his colleague Evelyne Gratton, coordinator of post-digitization and digital curation operations. They agreed to explore different “use cases” which can enable PERSIST to offer services to many organizations thanks to an economy of scale.
|Prof. Natasa Milic-Frayling and Stein van Oosteren during the conference call with Tristan Müller and Evelyne Gratton (BAnQ).|
This fortuitous development is a result of a meeting between BAnQ’s President Director-General Christiane Barbe, her Director of International Affairs Sophie Montreuil and Dutch government representative Stein van Oosteren at UNESCO. This cooperation is of great importance to PERSIST as it expands its reach to the francophone region. The next step will be an introduction of PERSIST to the network of francophone memory institutions named Réseau Francophone numérique (http://www.rfnum.org).
(French translation to be followed soon!)