On this month’s episode, we hear from Henry Lowood, curator for history of science & technology collections and for film & media collections at Stanford University and lecturer at Stanford University, San Jose State University, and UC Santa Cruz.
Join us as we discuss the history of Silicon Valley, historical game studies, emulation, and video game and software preservation.
Length – 47:38
We hope to see you again on April 1st, when we’ll be featuring a new interview with a software developer at a major digital repository!
See below the fold for a full transcript of the interview.
Derek: Hello and welcome to Beyond the Stacks: Innovative Careers in Library and Information Science. I’m your host, Derek Murphy, and today I’ll be talking with Henry Lowood.
Henry is curator for history of science & technology collections and for film & media collections at Stanford University. He is also a lecturer in the Science, Technology and Society Program and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Stanford, in the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University, and in the Art Department at UC Santa Cruz. His curatorial, research, and teaching interests are focused on the history of Silicon Valley, historical game studies, and issues around software and other kinds of digital collections.
Derek: I wanted to start out talking about your educational background. Could you tell me about that? Like, the advanced degrees that you’ve attained?
Henry: Yeah. So, I grew up in California, in Los Angeles in a German American family, and have four degrees from the University of California: Bachelor’s Degree, two Master’s Degrees, in Library Science and in History, and a PhD in History with a concentration in History of Science and Technology.
Derek: Ah, so which came first, the Library or the History Master’s?
Henry: Well, that’s a very complicated story. What came first in terms of my intentions was the history degree. So I was admitted as a graduate student in a PhD program at University of California Berkeley and went through the program there, started working on my dissertation, went over to Europe for a few years (I lived in Germany) to do some dissertation research and to live there for a while… Came back, started working in a library to put food on the table while I was finishing writing up my PhD dissertation, and got a job at the lowest level in the library at Stanford. That led me to go back to Berkeley while still a PhD candidate with the question: Is it possible to double major as a graduate student? And I expected of course the answer to be no, you have to apply… The reason was, of course, there was still a traditional library school at UC Berkeley at that time. It’s been replaced by the iSchool now. So I asked that question, and the response was actually yes! So while still a PhD candidate in History, I entered the library school program, and that means that everything at that point was kind of intermingled. I was a history graduate student and a library school graduate student at the same time.
Henry: Yeah, it’s unusual, and actually led to some very unusual things in the way that I completed my library degree. So I did finish. The order was: History Master’s, Library School Master’s, and then finally the PhD.
Derek: I see. So, double majoring, that must have been a huge time commitment, huh?
Henry: Well, considering the fact that I was also working full time in the library, yes. (laughs) It was. To say the least.
Derek: How did you survive?
Henry: Well, I went to the library school and said, “you know, I’m a PhD candidate in history and I’m taking these basic Master’s courses. Is there some other way I can complete the master’s degree?” And they said “Well, you know, since you’re a PhD candidate, why don’t you take PhD courses in the library school and they’ll count toward your master’s degree?”
Derek: Oh, interesting!
Henry: Part of that was efficient, because they also allowed me to count some of my history courses towards the degree, so that helped with my time management. But also that meant I could cherry-pick courses that were either more directly related to my work and thus helpful in that way, or, the way the library school was set up then, they had a lot of really interesting people who were working on topics that were quite future-oriented. I took a seminar on office technology for example, which in 1985, as you can imagine, was a pretty exciting topic. Or non-Boolean searches, you know. So it somehow all worked out.
Derek: That’s pretty amazing that you were able to take PhD classes as a master’s student.
Henry: One of the reasons I got the library degree was… With sort of a wink and a nod, several people had suggested to me that I seemed to be doing alright at Stanford in the libraries and that if I got a library degree I would have a good chance of getting a librarian position in the libraries here. Which is what happened. I got that position and at roughly the same time, (and this is all a story by the way of how lucky I’ve been), at about the same time, Stanford decided in a big way to open up a new History and Philosophy of Science program. And they, you know, the library looked around, they were thinking of different ways to support that program, and here’s this guy who’s getting a PhD at Berkeley in History of Science sitting around… I ended up being appointed as the Physics Librarian and also as the then bibliographer for History of Science and Technology, and because of that the library at one point gave me a summer to complete my dissertation, you know, basically to keep an eye on the library maybe one day a week, and then mostly the rest of the time I was at home frantically writing. And you know, when an employer does something like that, when they say “You’ve got three months to finish your dissertation, this is it,” you know, you put in twenty hour days to get it done. You’re not going to blow that opportunity. So that’s how I got it done, and again, it was a question, really, of the support that I got both from Berkeley and Stanford. Amazingly, while a librarian in the Stanford system, I was able to complete the dissertation.
Derek: And what was your dissertation on?
Henry: The dissertation was on 18th century German science and technology. Specifically it was about groups of societies that were founded to promote different kinds of scientific and technical activities, you know, like forestry, agriculture, sort of applied sciences and technology at that time. It was kind of an alternative to the university systems that were founded in various places in Germany. So I ended up writing about the early development of forestry, the early development of agricultural science, things like that, in this dissertation.
Derek: Ah, very interesting. So you were looking at far older history of technology than you more are lately.
Henry: Yeah. And you know, the funny thing about that is, at the time, so, somebody starting graduate work in the 70’s and 80’s, you know, a lot of people did work on early modern topics, 18th century, 19th century, and I knew quite a few. Almost everybody I know from that time period who was then working on 18th century science or technology is today working on post-World-War-II topics. It’s really strange. There seems to have been a huge shift in the 80’s and 90’s towards recognizing the value of looking at very recent science and technology, like history of computing of course, as historians. I was not the only one who made that kind of shift.
Derek: Well, things are moving so fast today in technology that history is being made constantly.
Henry: Yeah! Through my career, I continue to be active as a historian, and I find myself working on things that are, you know, five, ten years old as a historian, using normal methods of a historian, but on things that probably when I was starting would not have been considered sufficiently historical. But yeah, you’re right, the idea of what’s historical has changed quite a bit.
Derek: That’s pretty interesting. It sounds like you chose to get the Master’s in Library Science in large part because of your employment situation and the very clear benefits you saw to it.
Derek: And were there other reasons that you had in mind, with the library science degree, thinking about getting it?
Henry: Yeah. When I went to graduate school I had always been really interested in libraries. I was very certain that I was not interested in the traditional academic career. So, a sort of an alternate academic career before that really existed. And fortunately, the faculty I worked with, including my first reader on my dissertation, were very supportive of that. You know, seeing my dissertation work as sort of a combination of a personal goal, for me to complete the dissertation project, but also that I was looking at different kinds of careers other than, you know, a professorship or something like that.
Derek: Mhm. How did you envision the degree aiding you in your alt-academic career goals?
Henry: You know, I should say, in part, it was also a personal goal, just to do that project, so I was sure that I wanted to do some kind of work related to history, which had always been an interest. I briefly mentioned earlier that I had started in a technical area. I started first in engineering and then switched to physics. What happened was, the only elective I was able to take at UCLA was a history course, which completely reignited my interest in history, and then a few people, historians, told me about this field called History of Science and Technology, which seemed like a combination of history and technical interests, and that also was an area where, as I went to graduate school and stared learning a little more about things, that was an area in which there actually were more possibilities for different kinds of work such as museums. There were a number of prominent curators, say at the Smithsonian Museum, as there are today, who were doing museum work as historians. There were… the history of science and the history of the history of science. There had been some connections with bibliography, and the Harvard Library had played a role in that. I knew about those stories, so I just kind of had this vague idea that it was going to lead to something. As somebody in his early 20’s, you know, I didn’t really have a firm notion of what I would do, but I kind of hunched that it would lead to something that I wanted.
Derek: Indeed. That does sound like being in one’s 20’s.
Henry: (laughs) Yeah, exactly.
Derek: Did things work out the way you expected at that time, or did you kind of go down some surprise routes on the way to where you’re at now?
Henry: The answer’s sort of both. I’ve had a really unusual career in terms of the subjects and the areas and the libraries that I’ve been involved with. All at Stanford, you know, I’ve never really worked anywhere else. Over the course of time, I’ve been responsible for a physics library, for the German language collections (German history and literature), and film and media collections, always alongside history of science and technology. So I’ve always done pretty much two things. That’s kind of unusual, to be able to do something in the sciences (I was in the Physics library for 8 years) but also to do something in the hardcore humanities, which would be German literature and history. So there was always that kind of bouncing around and exploring within my library career. That was very unpredictable. But at the same time, I always had the feeling that I was sitting in my dream job. (laughs) You know, I was where I wanted to be, even though how I got there was certainly kind of random. So it was a little bit of both. It was a little bit of expected and a little bit of unexpected together.
Derek: Great. When you were in school for Library Science, what were some of the coolest things you were able to work on? We talked about how you were able to do some PhD classes, which is pretty neat. But where there any other really interesting projects you were able to be a part of?
Henry: Well, the interesting things I was able to be a part of were mostly connected with those seminars and such that I could attend, so it was just a completely different engagement with libraries and the future of libraries than the core courses would have offered me. I ended up only taking one core course, which was the cataloging course. Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean, really, it was, “Yeah! You basically can do whatever you want to do, and here, half of your units are covered because you’re a history graduate student,” and so forth.
I remember there was a course, for example, that Nancy Van House, who’s still in the iSchool, I believe, at Berkeley, taught on satisfaction studies. At that time, I was already working on things like that in the Stanford Library. I’d worked on some studies, collection development, and other sorts of things. We were doing some projects that the seminar directly benefitted from. So I was able to learn about methods and then almost immediately apply them in practice. That to me was very exciting. And even though that was not a course I’d really planned to take or anything like that, I just thought it would be sort of an interesting thing, it turned out to be very practical.
Likewise, interestingly, that Office Technology course that I’d mentioned, which was also sort of a graduate seminar, looking back, that was my first contact with some of the stuff that I would later end up archiving in my curatorial role at Stanford. There was a unit in which we looked at things like the application of artificial intelligence to office systems, and what were then called expert systems. That was the domain of a Stanford professor named Ed Feigenbaum, who I ended up years later bringing his papers into the library. Working with him on multiple projects having to do with the application of some ideas that he had certainly had from his work on expert systems to library/archival work. So that was really strange! That was something that I first encountered in this library school seminar as a thing going on out there in the world, but then it ended up being in my world as part of my curatorial work here at Stanford.
Derek: So you kind of lived through that history, that recent history, and then ended up working on the documentation of it later.
Henry: That was very much the case. We started the Silicon Valley Archives in the mid-1980’s while I was getting settled as the librarian and all of that, and I was able to go back to some of the things from that seminar and to some of my own experiences just from being here in the Bay Area and experiencing some things. You know, getting my first personal computer and what happened as a result of that kind of thing. So yeah, it did feel like that. It felt like this was a job that was definitely a historical job, but it was also living in the present and getting a kind of deeper engagement with what was going on around me.
Derek: Yeah, that’s really interesting. That seems atypical for a historian, to be able to work with such recent history that you lived through.
Henry: Yeah. I probably, if I had gone a traditional route it would have been… The kinds of collections I was working with and the kinds of work that I was documenting weren’t really being written about in the mid-1980’s. It probably would have been another ten or fifteen years before those things would have been more like mainstream topics. In particular I’m thinking about things like software. There was really not much going on in software history in the mid-1980’s and that’s the part that’s ended up being of particular interest to me. But I wouldn’t have been able to write about that and get tenure anywhere I don’t think in the mid-1980’s.
Derek: When did that sort of thing emerge as a viable academic pursuit, you think?
Henry: Yeah, I think it was probably more the snowball started going downhill probably more like the mid-1990’s or late 1990’s. Part of that was, I think, due to the impact of the World Wide Web, and realizing the power of all the different things that were going on with various kinds of software, but particularly with the web, which was making certain kinds of procedural work, you know, coding and so forth, more accessible to more people. More historians in particular started working on web sites and realizing, “oh, there’s some interesting stuff here,” and getting more interested in software as a result of that. And then there were also a few historians who started writing about the importance of software history around that time and encouraging other people to do it.
Derek: So now, I feel that this is going to be a big subject. I would like to talk about: what are some of the most exciting experiences you’ve had in your professional career, some of the most interesting projects you’ve enjoyed working on?
Henry: Well, for me, the big sort of through line has been the Silicon Valley Archives, which I’ve been working on now for about thirty years. There have been a lot of moments, mostly up moments. (laughs) There have been a few down moments in that work. I guess the first really, really exciting thing that happened as a result of working at the Silicon Valley Archives that made me think that some of these choices that I had sort of stumbled through were good ones had to do with the beginning of the Silicon Valley collection.
We sent out a lot of letters, you know, we’re going to do this at Stanford, and we’re going to send letters out to all these captains of industry and famous researchers and different people whose papers we would like to have. This was about 1985. We prepared a letter, sent it out to a whole bunch of people, got exactly one response. The one response though, was from Douglas Engelbart. Doug was a guy who in the beginning of the 1960’s had developed a paradigm about computing which he called Augmentation, had founded something called the Augmentation Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI. And basically in that project, worked out a whole lot of stuff that has been fundamental for computing ever since then. You know, everything from drop-down windows and email and stuff like that, to inventing the computer mouse. His lab is where the mouse was invented. A whole lot of things like that. He’s also very well known for something that happened in the late 1960’s, which was a demonstration of their system to a computer conference in the Bay Area, which is now known as the mother of all demos. It was this thing where they brought out their system, they were showing video inside a computer window while he’s talking and showing them a mouse and manipulating things. People were absolutely floored by this. It’s one of those things where there were probably 200 people there, but now probably about ten thousand people who claim they were there. (laughs) It was an amazingly important thing.
So I knew about him. I had read about him already by that time, particularly in one of Ted Nelson’s books. He was sort of… To get a letter back from him as the one person to respond to this broadcast group of letters was really quite a… almost like an emotional moment at that time. I got in touch with him. He was a fantastic guy. He was at a point of his career where he was really underappreciated because his work was really dependent on networking and this was the mid-1980’s when everything was about the personal computer, so networking was not that much the thing that was on people’s minds. His reputation made a huge comeback in the 1990’s. By that time we had his papers, I did an oral history with him, got to know him very well, got to know a lot of other people. That kind of thing where you sort of know about somebody or you admire someone and through your work you actually get to know those people and help them with the task of securing their legacy through their papers… That’s happened a few times since then, that’s the first time, and that’s just an amazing experience. It’s a very fulfilling experience to have. To be able to soak in what it’s like to be around people like that.
Derek: Indeed. That’s a major draw for me about the archivist profession. Just being able to, like you said, get to know people that you have admired kind of from a distance, or people that have made a huge deal in the culture. Yeah, it’s amazing.
Henry: It’s one of those things where it’s… you know, the wrong way to do it would be to be somebody who’s just thinking, “well here I am, I’ll just wait for things to come in the door and whatever comes in I’ll sort of work on in my cubicle or something like that.” It’s very much to make it work, you have to have a go-for-it attitude, and you have to not be reluctant to go out and contact people like that who in some ways you might be very nervous about actually meeting. And in some cases I was, you know? It’s really important to be able to reach out to people that you think deserve that. In most cases it turns out they’re not just fun to work with on the level of learning about things, but they often turn out to be really nice people, sometimes they become your friends. If you have that outlook on the job, if that’s something that’s important to you, to do those kinds of things, it can be very, very rewarding.
Derek: Most certainly, yeah. Making connections. So, starting from the one person that responded to your queries, did it kind of snowball from there? You got more people on board?
Henry: Yeah. Definitely. It’s been 30 years. It’s not really an international resource for the study of regional science and technology development. Of course, Silicon Valley is arguably the premier location for that kind of thing. So it was a good bet from that point of view. It snowballed in two ways. One way, I guess I would call, is the gift that keeps on giving, in the sense that other projects and initiatives have spun out of it. What happens is, when you’re doing this kind of work for a long period of time, and I would argue and some of my other colleagues have said this too, you really need to be in one place doing a thing like this for at least ten years for it all to start making sense. Because when you’ve done it for a while, your collections, they start to form a kind of a network. Through your initiatives. Then you start seeing opportunities for additional projects. Specifically, I’m sure you know about this, the work we’ve been doing the last ten or fifteen years on history and preservation of digital game software. Things like that. That was a spin-out from the Silicon Valley collecting. That’s one way that it snowballs.
The other way that it snowballs is that when collections like this start to hit a critical mass, when you start to get lots of scholars showing up and people start realizing that their buddy, like somebody at SRI, “Gee, Doug’s papers are at Stanford. Maybe I want to have my papers where Doug’s papers are.” You end up having to write far fewer of those letters that aren’t answered. (laughs) And instead it’s more about answering the phone. You know, answering your email and answering the phone. And that has definitely changed. I’ve gone from overwhelmingly my having to reach out to people, to overwhelmingly responding to people who contact me. Sometimes it’s researchers who have ideas for things or have their own collections. Sometimes it’s people who have friends or colleagues whose papers are here already. So that’s the other way that snowballed. In a way it makes the job easier, but in a way it doesn’t. Because now you’re dealing with kind of a triage, and having to, you know… You have a lot of people you have to respond to, and a lot of things going in parallel. Which is great, but… Yeah, it definitely feels like things have snowballed.
Derek: For sure, yeah, having more people come to you than you reaching out to people. That’s a mark of success.
Henry: Yeah. I hope so! (laughs)
Derek: (laughs) Great! So, you did mention just now your work with preserving video games. That is a personal interest of mine, I’ve done some writing about that subject as well, so I’ve been pretty eager to talk about it with you. So, could you kind of introduce us to the work you’re doing with preserving games?
Henry: Well, it started, as I suggested earlier, with a spinoff from the Silicon Valley collection. Specifically, what happened was, in the late 1990’s a collector, a young collector, had been a Stanford student, had stopped out, he had amassed a huge collection of software, hardware, publications, documentation, all kinds of stuff with the intention of eventually creating some kind of museum or institute devoted to the history of software and games. Somebody way out of ahead of everybody else, but basically just doing it on his own. Unfortunately, he became ill and died at a very young age, in his late 20’s. His family was now stuck with all of this stuff, and it was a massive collection that he had assembled. His sister then decided, you know, “What’s out there? Let me do some searches on the web.” and she started searching around, and we by then had a web presence for our Silicon Valley collections. She thought that was an interesting way, you know, possibly there was a connection there. Possibly Silicon Valley interests, high tech and all of that, computing, maybe they’d be interested in the software collection. They contacted us, long story short we negotiated and received the entire collection as a gift.
So there we are in the late 1990’s. Once I realized that I wasn’t gonna lose my job for having done this… At that time I should say, I’ve done some historical work on the history of collecting software and that was, I’m pretty sure, the first acquisition of a major software collection by a repository.
Derek: That’s amazing!
Henry: Yeah, the only existing collection at that time was the Library of Congress collection, which was based primarily on deposits of various kinds. So it hadn’t been acquired as a collection. So I was kind of sticking my neck out a little bit, but there wasn’t that much resistance to it. It was a software, microcomputing software collection, but it really was about 85% games, game-related materials. Games and educational software, I guess I’d put it that way.
So there we were! We had this collection. Again, this is another “gift that keeps on giving” kind of story. That led in 2000 to creating a project with a historian here named Tim Lenoir called How They Got Game. We began doing work that was a mix of historical work, preservation work, which at that time meant God knows what! We thought we just needed to do something; we had this collection. And also to some extent we were also doing some exhibits with game materials. We did two or three of those, which was also another interesting thing. So that portion that was the preservation activity led to the library’s engagement here in Preserving Virtual Worlds, which was a multi-institutional project, work that we’ve done with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That’s an ongoing project. It’s been going now I think over four years, having to do with migration of software. We have had projects funded by various agencies. Now we have an IMLS project going on about metadata.
The way I see it now, the projects have followed kind of a flow, and the flow is from initially looking at problems like: how do you collect software? How do you collect games? How do you document virtual worlds? How do we begin to preserve the software? How are we going to move this data off these media that are not going to be reliable in a few decades? What’s the solution for that sort of thing? How are we going to describe what we’ve now migrated, meaning metadata of course? To some stuff we’re working on now, which has to do with game citation, like in-game activities. How are scholars going to cite this stuff that they have access to relating to game history? And last… Probably not last, that’s probably famous last words, but… The next thing will probably be, the projects we’re thinking about now are things having to do with emulation, access, delivery in some kind of a reading room or online environment, the legal issues around that. So we’ve kind of gone in sequence from the first steps getting the stuff to dealing with the stuff and now eventually to making the stuff accessible. And it’s been, you know, fifteen years of engagement with these various problems.
Alongside that, I’ve also been very active in getting the history of digital games started as a kind of a field. So, I mentioned earlier, I’ve been able to keep my historical interests very aligned with what I’m doing in the library and that helps a lot with thinking about these problems. About, for example, what kinds of access will people want to have to these materials? What are the use cases for researchers coming in to a special collections department in a library and wanting to use historical software? It helps a lot to be doing that kind of work myself when I think about what the use cases might be.
Derek: Most certainly. You’re looking at how these things will actually be used in the future, while you’re working on preparing them for that usage.
Henry: Yeah, and it’s been really fascinating to see how there have been so many changes through library technology, work in digital humanities, work in the technology sector, all these different things. So that what seemed like a problem that was almost unsolvable around 2000, you know, the thinking about the digital dark ages and about how there was just no way we were going to be able to make all this stuff accessible to people, that so much of it would be lost, to today, where there’s a lot of reasons to start feeling pretty optimistic. There are robust digital repositories available now, the communities outside libraries have done amazing work with regard to emulation. We’ve seen some of that with the Internet Archive. It’s just a wholly, completely different situation now, looking toward the future, than it was fifteen years ago looking toward the future.
Derek: Do you see more general academic acceptance of game preservation, like, do you feel like attitudes are becoming… They’re changing, people are becoming more interested in this as a potential avenue of inquiry?
Henry: For sure. I guess that moment actually is past already. I think I’ve felt that way probably for about seven or eight years now at least. You know, when I said earlier that I was worried about getting fired, I actually wasn’t that worried because there was support both in the library and in the History of Science Program here for taking that collection in. I think it’s almost totally non-controversial now, I would say. Game studies feel like there’s almost a second generation of scholars coming out now, students who are finishing graduate work that was aiming towards game or software studies, or some other kind of interactive media studies. The first generation being people who did not have that preparation, who did things like eighteenth century German technology (laughs) and ended up doing this kind of work. There are programs that are growing very rapidly, UC Santa Cruz is one that I’ve been involved with a little bit. They have a fantastic program. It’s even plural, multiple programs related to game studies at Santa Cruz. UC Davis has been adding things. UC Irvine. So there are programs growing now.
In a funny way, it kind of reminds me of the situation when I was starting graduate school, because in the late 1970’s, 1980’s, History of Science was pretty new. The idea of studying what’s going on in a national laboratory where they’re doing accelerator work was not that well understood then. You know, so what do people do to do history about these scientific projects with hundreds of people working on them? And that of course has become very accepted, and it feels like I kind of went through that again, twenty-five, thirty years later with game studies, where a new field started. I feel like right now, it’s not only not controversial, but it’s become kind of a leading edge field in certain areas of the humanities. Digital humanities along with game studies really excited a lot of people, getting the attention of provosts and university presidents who are looking at the kinds of programs that will be founded to support that.
Derek: Well that’s good to hear, that we’re already past that, what’s the word, watermark or whatever. It’s becoming mainstream already. Great! So now, this might be a complex issue, but I was curious… You mentioned we’re still working out the legal situation sometimes with preserving games and I’m curious where we’re at with that right now, with copyright issues and problems of the law when it comes to keeping a game in an archive.
Henry: Well, as you suspect, it’s a gnarly, complicated, frustrating series of issues. I think it’s fair to say that the potential for obstacles for software preservation including games, is a much higher obstacle on the legal side than it’s looking like it’s going to be on the technical side. I know there’s a lot to do on the technical side, but gradually you see those problems being solved and worked on and so forth and so on, whereas the legal side is much less under our control. It’s based on decisions that are made sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with preservation and might even be counter to preservation.
Henry: It’s very complicated and there are different options that different institutions can take. The approach that we’ve generally taken at Sanford, and it’s not that I’ve made the decisions, but it’s the way that I’m comfortable doing things, is trying as much as possible to work with rights holders and so on to get agreements. You know, to do those kinds of things, because any agreement you get with somebody will mean that you don’t have to worry about the law any more, in the sense that you don’t have to worry if copyright will let you do this if the rightsholder said, “yeah, go ahead and do it!” It’s no longer an obstacle. But it’s a lot of administrative work. It’s just very, very complicated.
You know, it’s worth observing here that in some ways, as with other things such as technical problems, games turn out to be a really great place to work. Because games often are at the leading edge of things that affect other media as well. Distribution of games through online stores, through quasi-streaming solutions and things like that, led other media by a little bit. Music and video and so forth, you know, have come along and in many cases the size of those industries has even exceeded that of games, but when we work on problems like, you know, what are we going to do about downloading games or downloading saved games from a website, that started us thinking about problems that would lead us to other media. If we think about, “what are we going to do when a game company has its entire catalog on Steam or on the Apple store?” Well, turns out we’re going to have similar problems with television, music, you name it. Games turned out to be a very fertile area to work in.
Likewise, in the technical side when you’re working on games you’re working on audio, you’re working on video, you’re working on software, you’re working on a whole bunch of different things. Even with paper, still! So, games turned out to be really interesting that way.
I think, on the legal front it’s been particularly the case with that. We were able to start working on some issues. Some around game software specifically. Some around things like machinima, you know, things that people created using game content, game-based movies in that case. We were able to start working on things that got us thinking in certain ways that we could then sort of reapply, at least to some degree, when thinking about other media.
Derek: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. It’s jogging my mind. I’m thinking about, you know, problems of orphaned works for example. It’s like you said, things happen faster with software. Video games become orphaned in a matter of five or ten years sometimes, whereas in film an orphaned work is usually more like fifty years old. So yeah, that fast preservation risk and just the speed at which things move is really interesting.
Henry: Yeah. And as I say, it’s really getting collections isn’t a quick process of, like, you acquire it, you put it away, done. It’s really like this gift that keeps on giving. It leads to other projects, it leads to other collections, it leads to building up this network of projects and collections and a whole bunch of things that add up to careers and resources for researchers, and all sorts of things. That’s what I’ve really found the most, I don’t know, sort of takeaway. The thing that over decades I’ve learned about librarianship is that if you stick with something in librarianship, it’s never really the same, you know, it’s not like you’re a lifer who’s only doing one thing over and over and over again. The domain you’re working in, the collections you’re working with, they’re constantly changing and evolving and leading to other things. Games, like you said, sort of compress all of that. You know, it moves so quickly, the technology moves so quickly. The preservation questions and solutions move very quickly. Legal environments, decisions are made, exemptions are given. It’s a very compressed example of how working on a thing in the libraries will lead you down all kinds of different paths.
Derek: Definitely. You mentioned that there are a lot of communities outside of librarianship and archives that are doing crucial software preservation work, like emulation, for example. You know, I’ve seen it. It’s mostly, like, fandom communities or hacker communities that are making emulators for say, the Super Nintendo or whatever, and getting the ROMs functioning on it and all of that. It seems to me like that’s very important preservation work that maybe institutions might be kind of stymied legally from working on to the same degree. And I guess, how does that work out? Does the stuff created by hacker communities end up being used by librarians?
Henry: Yeah. The question is really a good one. I think it’s an important issue not just because of the specific kinds of things that you mentioned, you know, emulation and so forth, but also because I think the response that libraries make to things like this is going to be strategically very important for the future of libraries. So, on the emulation side, yes, I think there is now pretty widespread recognition that libraries will need to work with these communities and work with the solutions that they’ve created, knowing that there will be technical issues, there’ll be management issues, you know, how will those resources be sustained? And there will be legal issues as well.
For example, Library of Congress has recognized that… There was a conference at Library of Congress, gosh, I think it’s now about maybe a year and a half ago, called Preserving.exe. That was basically one attempt to sort of bring what’s going on “in the wild,” if you want to call it that, to a library institution, and what is more institutional in libraries than Library of Congress, right? So there’s a lot of awareness of that. We’ve also seen that with an institution like the Internet Archive, which is an institution, it is a library, but it also has some hybridity to it. It also has always had a lot of work from volunteers and from kind of a community that helps to sustain it. There’s no surprise, then, that they’re sort of leading in the use of emulation. So I think yes, the answer to your question about the use of emulation is no question. As we look now at things like emulation as a service, with the Olive Project at Carnegie Mellon, certainly the Internet Archive’s projects, that’s stuff that libraries will be engaging with, and will have to work on.
Before I get to the general thing I’ll mention one other thing that’s relevant here, and that is that over the last few years, we’ve also seen initiatives like the federal government mandating that data, digital data relating to funded research projects, should be preserved, that preservation plans for those data need to be submitted along with proposals for research grants. That means libraries now have to kind of collect that sort of data. Well, how’s somebody going to use that data in twenty or thirty years? What software are they going to run to do that? This means that for a really, really mainstream university library activity, that is providing the tools, resources, et cetera for saving these data, emulation might very well be a really important part of the solution.
Ok, so it’s something we’re definitely going to be seeing, that engagement with that particular technology. But in a broader way, I think it opens up a really key issue, which is, as we move forward, and as we start to see how libraries are going to involve… what kinds of communities are libraries going to support? What will research mean in a world where we’re already seeing that publication seems to be meaning different things than it used to mean? A lot of researchers are exploring different ways of publishing other than traditional monographs and traditional articles. So a lot of that is changing, and a lot of that is leading to different kinds of engagement with different kinds of communities. A scholar, for example, who is blogging alongside of doing more traditional kinds of publication, is seeing that there are many people responding to the blog posts that probably would not have read that publication. So they’re starting to learn about the work that he or she does as a scholar.
So that poses a question for libraries. If those kinds of big changes are happening, are libraries also going to be responding to different communities of researchers, different communities of interest? And doesn’t that kind of encourage us to become more involved with supporting activities of these kinds of communities to the extent that, you know, if you’re looking at a venn diagram of a community that’s interested in a certain kind of video game, that might intersect with another diagram of game scholars who might be active at your universities, or with the kinds of collections that you’re pulling together into your library because you’ve got the software now, and maybe the people in that community know more about what to do with that software than your staff does. So just thinking about emulation as one particular problem opens up thinking about a much bigger set of strategies about working with communities outside the traditional scope of research libraries. I think that’s going to happen. I think we’re going to see more and more projects at places like IMLS and NEH and so forth will be finding to explore those kinds of interactions. I think that’s a very important issue for libraries to think about.
Derek: Yeah, I very much agree. With everything that we’ve talked about, do you have anything more to add to the conversation before we wrap up?
Henry: Not particularly. I think we had a really good conversation. We touched all the bases I would have wanted to touch. So yeah, I think I’m good.
Derek: Great! Well, it’s been really great talking to you Henry.
Henry: Yeah, same here.
Derek: And also, I’m going to promote your book. (laughs)
Henry: Makes a great Christmas present, don’t forget to tell people that!
Derek: (laughs) So, keep an eye out for Henry’s upcoming book Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon, which is co-edited with Raiford Guins and published by MIT Press. It’s due out this spring. Also, if you’re interested in hearing more about Henry Lowood’s work, there’s another podcast he’s been featured on called A Life Well Wasted. It is actually a video games podcast, but their episode number two, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All,” is about various archival efforts in the world of video games, and there’s a very interesting interview with Henry there that you could check out. Thanks so much Henry, it was really interesting to talk with you!
Henry: Yeah, I enjoyed the conversation very much, thanks.