Let’s play a game. What do all of the items in these photos have in common?
Aside from them all being intense triggers of nostalgia, the items in these photos share a special characteristic. They are all … obsolete! In other words, they suffer from an incurable disease that frequently haunts pieces of hardware and software in the world of electronic and digital preservation. Obsolescence, or the condition of being obsolete, means that a resource is “no longer in use” or has “fallen into disuse.” Car phones, cassette tapes, U-matic tapes, VCRs, portable CD players (aka Walkman), Apple Macintosh software, and Microsoft Word Perfect are just a few examples of the many obsolete pieces of hardware and software that are fading further into history with each passing day. Though obsolescence is inevitable in a technologically advancing world, it presents a challenge for archivist attempting to persist electronic and digital media into the future. This is because electronic objects are “performances.” They require a source which is the content (ex. a data file), a process that can read and interpret the content (ex. a piece of hardware), and a performance of the object that makes it understandable and accessible to humans (ex. a specific software). So, we can save a source all we want, but if we do not have the hardware we need to process it and/or the software we need to perform it, the content is as good as lost.
Oh geez … I’m getting emotional. Am I the only one who gets emotional during discussions of obsolescence??
However, there is hope. Well, hope for saving the content anyway. In order to preserve information that requires obsolete hardware or software, archivists often engage in migration, emulation, or a combination of both. Migration is the most common preservation approach. It means copying or converting digital objects from one technology to another while preserving the object’s significant properties. Emulation is a bit different because instead of manipulating the object, it manipulates the object’s environment. Emulation involves “preserving the bitstream of the object and creating an access version by using current technology to mimic some or all of the environment in which the original was rendered.”
While there’s no doubt that saving the content of digital objects is crucial, it is interesting to think about what we lose when an object’s original form becomes obsolete. For instance, I distinctly remember sitting in the car on family road trips listening to Brandy’s Never Say Never CD on my mom’s Walkman. Thanks to the advent of digital audio files, I still enjoy listening to the music from the CD on my iPhone. However, I can’t experience it the way I used to on the Walkman. Is this meaningful? Well, perhaps not in this situation, but in others, it may be.
Check out this video from the National Archives (skip to 3:23) to see a cool collection of obsolete hardware that NARA is collecting!
What are some of your thoughts on obsolescence and ways archivists can manage it?
 Seth Shaw, “Representations and Performances” (presentation to distance learning ARST 5300 Digital Preservation course, August 31, 2015).
 “Selecting the Right Preservation Strategy: Migration,” JISC, accessed March 27, 2016, http://www.paradigm.ac.uk/workbook/preservation-strategies/selecting-migration.html.
 “Selecting the Right Preservation Strategy: Emulation,” JISC, accessed March 27, 2016, http://www.paradigm.ac.uk/workbook/preservation-strategies/selecting-emulation.html.
 For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, see Margaret Hedstrom et al. “The Old Version Flickers More”: Digital Preservation from the User’s Perspective, The American Archivist 69, no.1 (2006): 159-187.