EMIL – the key for long-term archiving

Tobias Steinke and Nathalie Lubetzki
Tobias Steinke and Nathalie Lubetzki | Photo (detail): © German National Library

Libraries have enormous collections of data storage media. The aim of the EMiL project is to ensure that they can still be accessed even after decades of technical progress. Tobias Steinke and Nathalie Lubetzki, both working at the German National Library, explain how this will be achieved.

Ms Lubetzki and Mr Steinke, can you explain EMiL for us?
Nathalie Lubetzki: EMiL is a project that is run by the German National Library (DNB) and funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). It has been underway since 2014 and will continue until September 2016. The project involves using emulation to provide access to multimedia objects such as educational software and encyclopaedias. The project partners are the Bavarian State Library in Munich and the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG). On the basis of our joint requirements, the University of Freiburg is developing a media access system that can be used in reading rooms and museums.
What is meant by “emulation”?
Tobias Steinke: Emulation is a long-term archiving method. It is designed to ensure that multimedia files can continue to be used even when the technology changes. Special software is run on modern platforms to emulate the older operating and computer systems that are needed to play the media files. Such software is known as an “emulator”. It can be used for example to recreate a Commodore Amiga computer system from the late 1980s on a modern PC. This means that software originally programmed for the Amiga can still be run today.
Lubetzki: Our involvement in EMiL stems partly from our official mandate: the German National Library is legally required to collect and archive works that appear in German and are published in Germany and to make them permanently accessible to users. This legal obligation also encompasses digital publications. Furthermore, the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design wishes to make media artworks accessible long-term.

EMiL graph EMiL graph | Photo (detail): © EMiL

New Generations of Hardware 

How great is in fact the danger of multimedia works being lost?
Lubetzki: There is a very real danger of this happening. The DNB has many thousands of objects on data storage media in its collection, such as educational software and digital encyclopaedias. It is already not easy to access many publications from the 1990s. What is more, the number of works that can no longer be accessed increases every time a new generation of hardware comes out. It is hoped that EMiL will resolve this problem.
How will this be achieved?
Steinke: The goal is to optimize the emulation process for libraries and museums by providing suitable emulators for a wide variety of different works. It is a question of managing existing emulators such that they can be used in an automated workflow. For example, a user enters a particular search term – “Goethe”, for instance – in a library’s catalogue system. A hit list may then be displayed that shows not only book titles but also a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990s. Ideally, if the user then clicks on the relevant link, an emulated version of Windows 95 will be launched in a browser window, allowing the CD-ROM to be viewed.
Where do the emulators you use come from?

Steinke: The emulators are developed for the most part by the Internet community, often by computer game aficionados. As a rule, they are open source projects that are then available for all kinds of different computer systems, such as the Atari ST, the Amiga or old Macintosh systems. Our project partners at the University of Freiburg have long been active members of this community and conduct research in the field of emulation. They are in contact with the amateur developers and put together the emulators for our project.

A never-ending process

How “long-lived” are these emulators? Do they also become obsolete in the end?
Steinke: The great majority of the multimedia objects in our collection are made for Windows. Once you have good Windows emulators, the problem is resolved for the time being – though only until such time as new computer systems are installed again here at the DNB, as then we will need new emulators again. The work is a never-ending process, in other words.
Can smartphone and tablet apps also be emulated?

Steinke: Apps are not the focus of our project but will increasingly become an issue in long-term archiving in future. Basically there are no emulators as yet for apps that run on iOS. Consequently, it makes no sense for us to collect iPad apps at the moment, even if they are reference works. Apple has no interest whatsoever at present in supporting an emulator – which means that it is not possible on either a legal or technical level. Emulators do already exist for Android apps, but as yet we do not have such apps in our collection.
When will libraries and museums be able to take advantage of the results of your research?
Lubetzki: We expect EMiL to be up and running at the DNB in 2017. In addition, the University of Freiburg will release the software on an open source basis. Institutions in other countries have also already expressed an interest in using the software in the near future.

Nathalie Lubetzki is an art historian who has worked for the German National Library in the area of multimedia access since 2011. In 2016 she assumed responsibility for the DFG-funded project “Using Emulation for the Provision of Multimedia Objects”.
Tobias Steinke
is a computer scientist who works on digital long-term archiving and Web archiving at the German National Library. He has been involved in numerous national and international projects and cooperative ventures in these areas.