The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Preservation of Executable Files
As digital materials become more prolific in large institutions like the Smithsonian, one of the biggest challenges that archives face is figuring out how to preserve uncommon or obsolete computer files. One example is executable files. EXEs are, generally, programs. But it’s not quite that simple! They might be interactive games, video slideshows, or install drivers. As a result, they aren't as uniform as .doc or .jpg files. As part of my internship at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I'm trying to figure out exactly what we should do with the executables in our collections, conducting research into the filetype and solutions for preservation, and examining the collections in order to create a plan.
As I went through them, I quickly learned that you never you know you're going to get! When I opened our executables, they ranged from databases to video games and, so far, from dates 1985–2006. That's precisely what makes these files difficult to preserve.
In that sense, it’s worth asking: do we want them?
They may or may not be worth keeping, depending on your institution's goals. (For instance, Library and Archives Canada doesn't keep executables in its trusted repository). At the Archives, I found slideshows that were once parts of exhibits—clearly important. I also found install files for programs for which we have updated versions—less important. Then there were files where we didn't even know what they were. Do we preserve them and hope that someday we will be able to figure it out? It seems to me that this has to be determined on a case-by-case judgment call, based on creation date, the files it came with, and if there is any metadata available.
How do we preserve them?
Executables are problematic. They're designed to work on a specific operating system with certain specifications.
A Quick tip: Many executable files will not run off of servers. If you're getting the error "The parameter is incorrect," copy the file onto a single machine and try from there. You'll get a much higher success rate!
So, now that we have the executables we want to keep, we have four options for executables that you can successfully open.
- Migrate: Migrating means that you update the information so that it runs on modern equipment. If you care about the content, but not about the original environment (processor speed, same operating system, etc.), this might be an option. You can update it so that it works for awhile, but computers aren’t static. They’re going to keep changing. In ten years from now, will your future-tablet-PC-holographic-super-machine run a Windows 7 executable? What about twenty, thirty, fourty years? It’s an issue archives are dealing with for all sorts of files, but with executables, the system specifications are so important that it is an even more pressing concern.
- Emulate: Emulating means that you create the proper environment for the file, and run it through there. As long as your emulation environment keeps working, you don’t have to worry about your executable becoming obsolete. But it takes a lot of computing power, time, and effort. And when you have 100 executables, most of which will need their own environments to run (especially in an archive that gets files from multiple institutions over a period of time), that might be beyond your resources.
- Extract Information: This is a great option if you don’t want to worry about the long term. If you can open the file, you might be able to extract all the content, assuming it isn’t too interactive. Moving images can become video files, sound can become audio files. Gain: drive space and preservation file format. Loss: functionality and interaction.
- Sit on It: If you cannot do what you want with the file, you can sit on it and hope that you find more metadata or figure out a way to get the information sometime in the future. However, you have to keep in mind that as technology develops, you move further away from the original environment. This is an option only if you think you’ll ultimately get more information about the file or figure out what you want to do fairly soon.
With the files I examined, we decided extracting the information might be the best option for the Archives at this point. Along with this plan, we document as much as we can about the EXE, including what it seems to be and the year it might have been created. Some of the information we are trying to keep doesn’t have to be in executable format. For instance, the slideshows can be turned into video fileswithout losing intellectual content or experience. Sitting on these files won’t help anything, and if we wait, we might lose information. One of the nice things about trying to preserve rather than altering or creating means that we don’t necessarily need the code of an executable; after all, we want to save the experience, not the programming.
- Smithsonian Office of Education, Smithsonian Online Records, 1991-1997, Accession 97-136, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- National Zoological Park, Office of Public Affairs, Subject Files, 1977-2003, Accession 07-023, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- National Museum of Natural History, Office of Education, Productions, 1996-2000, undated, Accession 11-014, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Virtualization for Preservation of Executable Art, Kam Woods, Indiana University, Department of Computer Science, 2008