Collecting & Preserving Code


What happens when archives and museums want to preserve something intangible, ephemeral (and possibly destined-for-obsolecence)? The Smithsonian Institute’s National Design Museum, Cooper-Hewitt, is exploring answers to this question as it archives code for the first time. As this post on the museum’s blog explains, Cooper-Hewitt has acquired the code for Planetary, an iPad app that visualizes its users’ music collections as celestial bodies — planets, moons, and stars.

In order to preserve the Planetary code, the museum has had to take some challenges in stride. For example, the software is designed to run on a particular kind of hardware, in this case, an iPad2 and the version of Apple’s iOS with which it is compatible. Preserving code means preserving what the post describes as “large, complex and interdependent systems” — and goes beyond just preserving a set of machines. Part of what’s so exciting about this code is that it’s designed for interaction. As the post points out, “we believe that Planetary is foremost an interaction design that found its ‘then-best manifestation’ in the iPad.” In other words, that manifestation was contingent on a number of historical, technological, economic and cultural factors — and might have taken a different form at another time, in other circumstances.

In accord with its enthusiasm for the interactive possibilities of the Planetary code, Cooper Hewitt is making the source code for Planetary freely available on GitHub, so you can download it, alter it, play around with it, or just get a look at it, close up.

The museum has also printed out a hard copy of the code, on archival paper, so it will be preserved in material format should something happen to the online version.

Reading this post, I wondered what kinds of Div III projects have posed particular preservation challenges for College archivists, given the many formats in which students create work and share it — especially those working in new media. Jimi Jones, our archivist & media preservation expert, probably has some stories to share!


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