Proof-of-Concept: Checkout System/Workflow

In the last post, I discussed the third and final method used for designing the checkout system: previous use cases. Compiling a list of previous uses allows the Briscoe to plan for future uses and generate a framework for vetting research requests. Now, after interviewing stakeholders, shadowing Briscoe staff, and delving into the UTVA’s history, I was ready to apply the lessons learned and create a checkout system/workflow that can accommodate in-Reading Room research requests.

The Checkout System

Briefly, the checkout system I created has five distinct stages through which the materials flow:

  1. Stabilize and maintain the hardware
  2. Request the hardware
  3. Locate and retrieve the hardware
  4. Assemble and use the hardware
  5. Reshelve the hardware.

In this post and those that follow, I will discuss the checkout system and its five stages in two ways. First, I will describe an imagined research scenario in which a team comes to the Briscoe and requests specific UTVA materials. I used this specific scenario to help picture the interactions among the visitors, staff members, and internal and external access tools.

Second, in the next series of posts, I will discuss each of the 5 stages of the checkout system/workflow as they relate to the specific hardware request. By imagining the console moving through the system, I worked to create the access tools that would help Briscoe staff successfully service the hypothetical team’s research needs. The same tools that will be used in the actual trial run!

The Research Scenario

A PhD student in the Radio, Film, and Television (RTF) department at the University of Texas has arrived at the Briscoe Center with a research partner and wishes to use the Mattel Intellivision II.

The team is researching video game emulation and wants to experience authentic game play with the original system in order to investigate significant properties of that game experience.

Which, if any, significant properties are lost playing Frogger on an emulator when compared to Frogger on a Mattel Intellivision II?

The team arrives at the Briscoe Center on a Tuesday morning around 10:30am (roughly 30 minutes after the Briscoe opens). The team is arriving unannounced; the Briscoe has received no prior notification for their visit.

The team has knowledge of the Mattel Intellivision II because the team knows about the University of Texas Videogame Archive at the Briscoe and did a search of the finding aids on TARO. A manifestation of the Mattel Intellivision II was located in the Guide to the Billy Cain Papers. Frogger is also a part of the video game library at the UTVA (Brown and Cain collections).

Reading Room: The reading room has five people already paging boxes, one of which is an out-of-town visitor who has seven boxes on hold.

Reference Archivist: The Briscoe’s Reference Archivist has an M.S.I.S. from “School” and five years of professional experience. The Reference Archivist has been on the desk for one year and currently has one reference shift per week.

Reference Pages: There are two reference pages working in the reading room when the research team arrives. One page has been working at the Briscoe for 2 years; the other has worked at the Briscoe for 3 months.

In the next post, we will tackle the first stage of the process: Stabilize and Maintain the Hardware. This step occurs before any potential UTVA user interacts with the Briscoe. In order to provide access, the artifacts need to be processed and cataloged.

Proof-of-Concept: Potential Use Cases

In the last post, I described shadowing Briscoe staff members in order to see the archives through their eyes. Watching and participating in normal business operations combines with the stakeholder interviews to create a more nuanced picture for designing the checkout system. In this post, I would like to discuss the third method employed while creating the checkout system: compiling previous use cases of UTVA hardware (and other UTVA materials).

As I noted in an earlier post, UTVA hardware has been used in exhibits and in both undergraduate and graduate classes at the University of Texas. These different examples of use speak to the value of the materials as primary resources and provide clues about possible future uses of the collections. Not only can we think about providing access to the materials, the history of the UTVA’s uses can help in sketching a framework for vetting research requests.

When compiling these cases, I primarily used our blog, Continuous Play, and my experiences working with the UTVA during the Fall 2015 semester as sources. One key observation is the overlap between categories of use. For example, materials can be used for creating an exhibit as a class project.


Undergraduate Classes:

This semester the Briscoe was pleased to host tours for two UT classes:

Ms. Meyerson selected UTVA materials from several collections, including a Vectrex, an Atari 2600, a ColecoVision, and a Nintendo NES. We created internal exhibit documentation using aspects of the metadata schema introduced by Matt for his capstone project. For each class, the students were split into two groups with each group spending some time with the materials and with Briscoe staff for an orientation.

Ms. Weil’s class had a specific course objective related to the UTVA: “demonstrating the value and limitations of video game histories and archives”. Her class visited the archives during her first module: “The History of Video Games.”

In Mr. O’Brien’s class, the students had a group presentation project that required a visit (more likely visits) to the archive after the initial tour. The project required students “to conduct archival research in the [UTVA] in order to examine the roles that Austin has played in the development of the larger gaming industry.” Ms. Meyerson and Mr. O’Brien selected archival boxes and reserved them for student use. Students came to the Briscoe individually or in groups to work on their assignment.

When I was researching archival reference for my literature review, I read AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise by Elizabeth Yakel and Deborah Torres. One of their findings related that archival novices often lack “both a well-defined research strategy and any prior knowledge of the archives.” These users have difficulty formulating ‘good’ research questions and understanding how an archives can be used for primary source material, especially with respect to artifacts. Structured undergraduate experiences like those above can help increase both archival intelligence and artifactual literacy.

Graduate classes & Individual work

As I can attest, the Briscoe Center has a great working relationship with the School of Information. Students have worked with UTVA materials for class assignments or for Capstone projects. Students in the Digital Archiving and Preservation class have preserved digital audio files, performed small scale emulation research, and archived George Sanger’s workstation. Matt Cepeda created an exhibit “Experience Gained/Level Up!” for his capstone and this project is mine.

This relationship with the iSchool is sure to continue and the UTVA hardware presents a unique opportunity to expand the Briscoe’s relationship with the University of Texas in other, exciting directions. In my post about the preservation and conservation of plastics, I discussed the need to perform yearly inspections on the console systems, including checking game play. I also mentioned some spectroscopic techniques that can be used to identify mystery plastics in the hardware casings. Both of these tasks would be wonderful hands-on learning experiences for UT students in the Chemistry, Physics, Electrical Engineering, and/or Computer Science departments. While many, many details would need to be worked out, reaching out to these departments to gauge interest might be a great capstone project in its own right.

All of these different uses shine a light on possible future uses. And the accumulated experience allows us to try to plan for these cases. We need a way to show that materials are unavailable once pulled for exhibits. We can work with undergraduate classes to create semi-structured archival experiences that hopefully encourage younger students to come back. Finally, we can offer to graduate students fertile ground for new research and opportunities to gain real world, resume-ready experiences working with collection materials.

Proof-of-Concept: Shadowing

In the last post, I described stakeholder interviews and some of the main issues drawn from those conversations. I ended that post by mentioning some steps taken while designing the checkout system to address these issues. In this post, I would like to discuss further a second method used in the design process: shadowing Briscoe staff.

During my time here at the Briscoe, I was able to shadow both staff members at the Reference desk and Pages as they reshelved materials and serviced researcher requests. I wanted to see 1) how the Briscoe operates during normal business hours; 2) what resources staff use to help locate materials, and 3) any potential pain points for the checkout system. In addition, I underwent a training session for newly-hired Briscoe pages to get a better understanding of their workflows and procedures.

If you recall an earlier blog post, shadowing can allow one to see and understand the Briscoe’s social context. The Reference Desk is the first point of contact for researchers in the Reading Room and the first place they turn should something go wrong with the UTVA hardware. And pages will likely be the ones to retrieve and assemble gaming systems.

I’ll start by talking about some of the experiences from the reference desk. As noted, the reference desk is the first point of contact for guests while in the Reading Room. How can we help when UTVA-related issues arise? Game systems are similar to A/V equipment found in the Reading Room. The Briscoe has dedicated stations for researchers to interact with phonographs, DVDs, VHSs, microfilm, and other media. Written instructions and guidelines have been prepared by Briscoe staff and are available at these stations for quick reference. I mentioned in the last post about taking digital images for identification purposes and we also plan to write a set of console-specific instructions for the test runs. As we look towards the future for the UTVA, similar instructions for each console will hopefully be generated. At the same time, the A/V equipment is non-collection material and, as such, remains in the Reading Room. The UTVA hardware is collection material and will have to be stored at the end of the day and then reshelved.

One researcher interaction raises an interesting issue for UTVA materials. A guest had a question about proper citations after coming across an unlabeled folder within a labeled box. This represents a granularity question: How close can a citation direct a person to a resource? The consoles and peripherals will likely be described and cataloged at an item level. But how to cite actual gameplay? Emulation research represents a popular use for consoles and a researcher might need to be able to cite the gaming experience: the artifacts plus the activity. We are working on a tentative citation format.

The Briscoe allows guests to bring in cameras and take pictures provided they sign a camera agreement. With respect to emulation research, I can imagine a researcher wanting to record gameplay. This consideration raises copyright issues. Do fair use exceptions apply to video games used for research? Do copyright protections apply to the computer code? Or the visual presentation of the program? Or both at the same time? Or both separately? Fortunately, this lies outside the scope of my project.

Shadowing the pages and participating in page training helped me fully appreciate the need for clearly written procedures, complete floor-by-floor indices, and labeled navigational maps. I plan on creating written instructions for console setup and troubleshooting suggestions to accompany the digital images and the generalized step-by-step instructions for checkout.

Proof-of-Concept: Stakeholder Interviews

In the last post, I introduced the proof-of-concept checkout system and briefly described the methodology used to create it. In this post, I would like to discuss more thoroughly the first technique: stakeholder interviews.

There are several benefits to be obtained from touching base with relevant parties at the Briscoe, especially those parties that may deal directly with UTVA collections. First, the interviews bring together multiple institutional perspectives. Since we are attempting to create a checkout system that can untether a collection from a single staff member, it behooves us to be proactive about identifying and possibly addressing issues common throughout the archives.

Second, the literature that I read regarding archival reference strongly emphasizes that collection knowledge is a key to providing high quality archival reference service. How can we diffuse collection and institutional knowledge? How to diffuse knowledge about the UTVA for staff not directly involved with accessioning and processing the actual materials? One component of a solution is establishing documentation practices for creating accurate and comprehensive access tools: finding aids, inventory lists, internal navigational guides, etc. To this end, Janice Ruth suggests that archival reference staff be involved in the creation of these tools. These interviews build on and extend this idea to include more people. Since Ms. Meyerson, UTVA interns, and I work with these materials daily, what can we do to make access more accessible?

The legacy hardware in my project present a unique set of challenges. Use of a gaming console for emulation research requires other components (peripherals) to render properly the game. In our circumstances, these peripherals are also collection materials. And, in order to provide an authentic gaming experience for a researcher, we need access to non-collection material, e.g., a TV. Finally, the gaming system’s components have to be gathered and assembled. I cannot remember when I last saw an RF Switch Box before this project.

So what did I do? I interviewed these different stakeholders at the Briscoe: Exhibits, Reference, Pages, and Public Services. And what did we learn?

Access for Briscoe staff has two components. One has to be able to find an object both intellectually via finding aids, inventory lists, etc  and physically within the building via shelf lists, navigational maps, etc. When an object’s location changes, there are multiple opportunities for ‘error creep.’ How does documentation get updated? Who is responsible for updating? And when these documents are updated, do all relevant actors have access to them? For example, if hardware from the UTVA is pulled for an exhibit, it essentially goes ‘dark’ for the length of the exhibit. Briscoe staff and potential researchers would need to know that certain items are inaccessible. This example helps to illustrate that the documentation resources are ‘living’ documents and will grow over time. As I previously mentioned in the post “Plastics: Preservation and Conservation”, this again reminds me of PREMIS: hardware as objects, location changes as events, and documentation ‘updaters’ as agents.

At the same time, UTVA documentation may become unwieldy. When pages retrieve boxes, pages often are unaware of their contents. Consoles and related peripherals strongly suggest item level control and description which, in turn, generates more documentation.

And some legacy gaming systems harken back to the 1970s and 1980s. How do we provide technical assistance in the Reading Room should a problem arise? Are some of the materials too resource intensive and thus will not be paged without prior notice? How do we respond appropriately to an unannounced guest requesting UTVA hardware? What does a legitimate researcher request look like? Sound like? Developing the checkout system will also help the Briscoe fine tune UTVA access policies.

Finally, how did we apply our interviews when initially designing the checkout system? We described and cataloged at an item level including delineating the relationships between a console and its associated peripherals. Matt, the previous UTVA intern, created a UTVA Master Hardware Inventory list and there is a 1-to-1 correspondence between an item and its inventory number. This relationship is unbreakable which allows the item’s location to be updated as needed. And we took a lot of digital images…images of hardware, of non-collection materials, systems being assembled, locations within the Briscoe. The respective inventory numbers serve double duty as a naming convention for images, files, documents, and folders for staff members. These resources were placed in locations already in use by Briscoe staff, emblazoned with the title “UTVA Hardware”.

In later posts, I will discuss some additional documentation created to help service UTVA hardware requests.

Stay tuned!

Proof-of-Concept Checkout System

In this post, I would like to introduce the second major component of my capstone project: the proof-of concept checkout system.

After spending time researching and learning about ways to stabilize the collections and catalog the materials, the time came to apply this knowledge and create a proof-of-concept checkout system/workflow to accommodate in-reading room research requests as well as other uses of UTVA materials.

I intend simply for this blog post to serve as a short methods section, in which I describe some of the techniques we used to create our check-out system/workflow. I participated in stakeholder interviews, shadowed reference staff and pages, compiled previous use cases of UTVA materials, and, finally, crafted an imagined research/user scenario to ‘watch’ the process from start to finish. In subsequent blog posts, I will go into greater detail about each technique.

The stakeholder interviews allowed us to consider UTVA hardware from different perspectives within the Briscoe Center and to bring input from other members into the system/workflow, as these members may interact with the UTVA in the future. Ms. Meyerson and I spoke with “Exhibits”, “Reference”, and “Public Services” at the Briscoe. We wished to see the archives through their eyes.

Second, I shadowed both reference staff and the pages at the Briscoe. The plan was to see the Briscoe in action during a normal day. I spent time at the Reference Desk and followed pages while they reshelved items and retrieved other items. I was even ‘trained’ as a page so I could experience paging first hand. I was interested in observing the staff when bringing resources to bear when servicing research requests.

Third, I looked into the brief history of the UTVA and compiled previous use cases. The UTVA has been used in exhibits and in both undergraduate and graduate classes here at the University of Texas. These use cases help demonstrate the collections’ value as primary resources and can give clues about potential uses in the future.

In a loose sense, I am conducting an ethnographic study at the Briscoe, trying to understand its social context.

Finally, I am combining the lessons gleaned from these experiences in creating an imagined research/use case in which a hypothetical research team requests a specific gaming console. By watching the gaming console as it moves through the proposed workflow, we will better understand how we can provide better access.

Lit Review: Similar Collections

In the last post, I listed the resources I discovered and used while conducting the literature review. In this post, I would like to share a list of similar collections held by various institutions. These collections engender similar, and likely shared, problems. As a result, there is potential for future collaboration with partners in the quest to forge ‘best practices.’ Please note that all links were checked on November 17, 2015.

Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection, Department of Special Collections at Stanford
Stanford’s Cabrinety Collection contains, among other materials, computer hardware, peripheral devices, handheld devices, and legacy gaming systems.

University of Michigan: Computer and Video Game Archive
The CVGA serves dual purposes for the University of Michigan community. Visitors can use and play a wide variety of games from the 1970s onward in dedicated room in the library and the games are available for academic inquiry and research. Essentially, their games are meant to be played by both researchers and gamers.

National Videogame Archive (National Media Museum – UK)
The UK’s National Videogame Archive is held in the National Media Museum and includes some legacy gaming systems. Some of the archive’s materials have been used in a newly opened National Videogame Arcade in Nottingham.

Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities – Vintage Computers
Vintage computers have similar preservation issues as video game systems. This resource contains description schemes and a model for preservation.

Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) – University of Colorado, Boulder
The MAL has hardware “still functioning from the past” such as computers and gaming systems which allows them to maintain access to digital objects made by or rendered on these hardware devices. They use one of the most extensive hardware metadata descriptions we can find.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Video Game Archives
UIUC has a vintage gaming collection that is available to UIUC faculty for research purposes. The collection also contains the hardware and peripherals needed to render the vintage games.

The Computer History Museum
The museum is “dedicated to the preservation and celebration of computer history.” They collect artifacts such as hardware and ephemera.

International Center for the History of Electronic Games – The Strong National Museum of Play
The ICHEG has quite an extensive collection of video games and related materials, some 55,000 items. One of the museums blogs, CHEGheads, “explores the past, present, and future of electronic games.”

Computerspielmuseum – Germany
The museum is billed as the “first European museum for video and computer games.” They collect both games and the hardware and peripherals necessary to render the games.

Retro Computer Museum – UK
From their website: “The Retro Computer Museum is a registered charity dedicated to the benefit of the public for the preservation, display and public experience of computer and console systems from the 1960’s onwards.”

Lit Review: Consolidated List of Resources

In this post, I would like to present a list of resources that I have used and found helpful during this project. The resources will be separated into different categories. My many thanks to the various authors and researchers. Note: all links were checked on November 16, 2015.

Videogame Preservation:

Before It’s Too Late: A Digital Game Preservation White Paper
Written by the Game Preservation Special Interest Group, International Game Developers Association and published in March 2009, this white paper can be described as a call to action as the authors address the problems of game preservation.

Digital Preservation of Console Video Games by Mark Guttenbrunner
In this paper published in October of 2007, Guttenbrunner writes about digital preservation of video games in light of hardware failure and obsolescence. He discusses various digital preservation strategies including the “museum approach”, maintaining the original software and hardware. He lists the UNESCO Guidelines for the Preservation of Digital Heritage.

Grand Theft Archive by Paul Gooding & Melissa Terras
In this 2008 article, the authors describe a quantitative analysis of the state of computer game preservation. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the authors argue for the use of ‘less academic’ sources of information like Wikipedia, message boards, and blogs.

Playing History with Games: Steps Towards Historical Archives of Computer Gaming by Henry Lowood
Lowood, Stanford’s lead on the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, presented this paper at the Electronic Media Group annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Lowood makes the case for preserving video games and lists recommendations for cultural heritage institutions with video game collections.

Guidelines for the Preservation of Digital Heritage (UNESCO)
Authored by the National Library of Australia for UNESCO and published in 2003, the goal for creating these guidelines was “to improve access to digital heritage for all the world’s peoples.” Similar to the Guttenbrunner paper, the guidelines describe and evaluate digital preservation strategies including technological preservation.

Preservation of the Video Game by Allison Hudgins
In this 2011 article, the author discusses the problem of and need to preserve video games and the gaming experience. Video games require “complex, obsolete hardware, which faces its own preservation challenges.”

Collecting and Preserving Videogames and Their Related Materials: A Review of Current Practice, Game-Related Archives and Research Projects by Megan Winget & Caitlin Murray
In this 2008 article, the authors provide a review of then-current efforts underway to preserve video game and discuss four digital preservation strategies including emulation.

Preserving Videogames for Posterity by David Watson
Multimedia Information & Technology, May 2012, Vol. 38, Issue 2, p. 30-31
In this short resource, the author touches upon both hardware preservation and why it is only a short-term strategy for video preservation. This article was one of the first I encountered that mentioned deterioration of the plastics in hardware casings.

Preserving Virtual Worlds
This collaborative research project was conducted as part of Preserving Creative America, an initiative of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress. The project investigated issues surrounding the preservation of video games.

“How Do I Preserve an Unused Computer?” – SuperUser Community Blog
This resource is an example of research-by-analogy. The blog authors and its reading community talk about different environmental hazards that can negatively impact a computer and its internal components.

Vintage Computing and Gaming Blog by Benj Edwards
Mr. Edwards runs a blog about “computer, video game, and technology history” and frequently writes about retrogaming.

Plastics: Identification, Preservation, Conservation

Tulane University Libraries – Preservation Resources: Computer and Video Game Preservation
This resource presents information with respect to preserving the physical carrier of video games, such as plastics, and the digital information the carrier contains.

Plastics Historical Society
The Plastics Historical Society was formed in 1986 “to draw attention to the heritage of the plastics industry and to celebrate all things plastic.” One can find information about caring for, conserving, and identifying plastics.

Preservation of Plastic ARtefacts research project was initiated by the European Commission in 2008 to develop “a strategy for the preventive conservation and maintenance of modern material artefacts.” Most of the project’s main results are found in this resource. Perhaps the best find during the literature review.

Getty Conservation Institute
The mission of the Getty Conservation Institute includes advancing “conservation practice in the visual arts, broadly interpreted to include objects, collections, architecture, and sites.” Their newsletter, Conservation Perspectives, covers the Institute’s projects and activities related to conservation practices.

Metadata and Cataloging

GAMECIP – GAme MEtadata and CItation Project
This resource is the digital presence for the GAMECIP project, a project that investigated “metadata needs and citation practices surrounding computer games in institutional collections.” The resource provides links to different projects and publications. Their metadata schema can be found on the Open Metadata Registry.

GAMECIP – Hardware Platforms (Spin off project through Stanford University)
One of GAMECIP’s goals is to create controlled vocabularies for different aspects of computer games. This spin-off project developed a controlled vocabulary for platforms.

Online Audiovisual Catalogers (OLAC)
OLAC is an organization for catalogers concerned with non print materials including digital. This resource is their online presence with links to the group’s publications and training guides.

Best Practices for Cataloging Video Games Using RDA and MARC21
These best practices were created by GAMECIP and OLAC to help cultural heritage institutions catalog video games uniformly as RDA was rolled out by the Library of Congress.

Archival Reference

Archival Intelligence and User Expertise by Elizabeth Yakel and Deborah Torres
The American Archivist, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 2003), pp. 51 – 78
The authors conducted interviews of archival users to generate a model of researcher expertise. They use this model to discuss ways curatorial and reference archivists can help a potential guest transition from an archival novice to an expert.

Archival Reference Knowledge by Wendy Duff, Elizabeth Yakel, Helen Tibbo
The American Archivist, Vol. 76, No.1, (Spring – Summer 2013), pp. 68-94.
The authors interviewed archival users and surveyed archival staff to investigate the types of knowledge needed to be a proficient reference archivist.

Educating the Reference Archivist by Janice Ruth
The American Archivist, Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer 1988, pp. 266 – 276
Ruth discusses two ways to increase researcher use of collections – improved finding aids (and other navigational documentation) and increased reference staff expertise and ways to enhance them both.

For Love of the Game: An Ethnographic Analysis of Archival Reference Work by Ciaran Trace
Archives and Manuscripts 34 (1) (May 2006): 124 – 143
Trace conducts an ethnographic study at an archives to help archivists better understand archival reference and the interaction between researcher and reference staff.

‘You’re a Guide Rather than an Expert’: Archival Reference from an Archivist’s Point of View by Wendy Duff & Allyson Fox
Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol. 27, No. 2, October 2006, 129 – 153.
The authors conducted interviews with reference archivists in an effort to understand barriers to providing reference services and the skills and knowledge needed for quality reference interactions with guests.

Lit Review: Cataloging and metadata

In this post, I would like to share and describe some results from the literature review directed at cataloging our consoles. What metadata elements are important? How do other institutions describe their holdings? Do standards for hardware consoles exist?

With respect to cataloging the video games themselves, significant efforts are already underway. The Game Metadata and Citation Project (GAMECIP) “is a multi-year IMLS-funded investigation of metadata needs and citation practices surrounding computer games in institutional collections.” One goal of the project is “aimed at providing guidance and recommendations for correct and thorough metadata schemas for digital games and related objects.”

Project members participated in the creation of a document called the Best Practices Guide for Cataloging Video Games using RDA and MARC21. This guide was alluded to in Matt’s March 2015 post and was published in June 2015 by the Online Audiovisual Catalogers (OLAC), Inc. Cataloging Policy Committee Video Game RDA Best Practices Task Force (how is that for a mouthful?).

GAMECIP maintains a metadata schema in the Open Metadata Registry. Platform (console) is one of the metadata elements. Also in June, a GAMECIP spin-off project was started by Mitch Mastroni, an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz in Computer Science: Game Design, to create a list of preferred terms (a controlled vocabulary) for platforms. It is exciting to note that Mr. Mastroni’s work now appears to be available online.

While having a controlled vocabulary for the names of platforms is a great start, as previously reported by Matt, there is “no hardware-specific standard or set of descriptive elements” for the actual consoles or platforms. The Briscoe plans to incorporate the metadata elements used by the Media Archaeology Lab (MAL) at the University of Colorado, Boulder in their catalog descriptions of game consoles. The descriptions used by the MAL include elements like “CPU”, “RAM”, and “Compatible Peripherals.”

When I began work on this project, I slightly expanded the scope of the literature review and looked for institutions that work with vintage computers. Research-by-analogy, if you will. I’d like to mention one promising lead in this direction.

The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) has collections of vintage computers and their metadata description scheme attempts to describe both components and properties of a system. The MITH describes hierarchical component relationships – for example: “has software”, “has parts”, “is part of” – and allows browsing across systems by tag groupings – for example: “motherboard”, “video card”. The MITH argues that “preservation and conservation efforts focused on works created on a system, as well as the system itself, will need a more detailed description of the system” including the materials of the system. Each item comes with associated metadata format links through which one can see, for example, the RDF/XML document tree.

In my opinion, utilizing hierarchical component relationships and tag groupings, as demonstrated by the MITH, might be a valuable addition to the metadata elements recorded by the MAL. In a perfect world (loads of time and money!), the combination could provide both more granularity and a richer description of a resource’s internal and external relationships.

Plastics: Preservation and Conservation

In my last post, I discussed techniques one can use to identify the plastics in the casings of the consoles. The three plastics commonly used in the casings are likely polypropylene, impact styrene, or ABS. For example, when I did a cursory visual examination of a few consoles from more recent video game generations (5th, 1993 – 2003), I found ABS stamped into the plastic casing. We may not be as lucky when dealing with older systems. Once we have an idea of the plastic, we can move onto concerns about preservation, storage, and conservation.

While  numerous resources are available online, for this post, I wanted to mention three specifically that helped me. We have already met the Plastics Historical Society  and POPART from the last post. The third source is the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). The GCI publishes a newsletter called Conservation Perspectives and their Spring 2014 issue was dedicated solely to plastics.

The most common environmental degradation factors for plastics include light, UV radiation, oxygen, water/moisture, heat, and pollutants. If possible, store the consoles and peripherals in a cool, dry, and dark place with stable humidity. In an earlier post, Matt described a rehousing program for consoles and peripherals lacking their original packaging.


For loose items not yet rehoused, they are in a room that receives very little light.

Some of the sources also mention storing items in a room with some ventilation and warn against storing items in completely sealed containers. At the same time, you may have noticed that the console in the above picture is……in a completely sealed polypropylene bag. We felt that sealing the bags is preferred for two reasons. First, the importance of maintaining the connection between the item and its identification card outweighs the risk of reducing air flow, especially when considering materials moving from storage to a reading room and back again. And, second, water/moisture can cause severe problems for the more delicate components of a console’s motherboard. It is possible that the electronic components fail before the plastic does.

It is also possible to put mechanical stress on plastic objects when being stored or being handled. Even though the consoles are composite objects, it is possible to cause damage by taking the object apart. As much as possible, we plan to try to support objects in their natural shape while maintaining their integrity.

The sources suggest yearly inspections to check on the objects. As the consoles were originally designed to be played, these inspections should probably include turning the consoles on and checking game play. This reminds me of PREMIS: consoles as objects, inspections as events, and inspectors as agents.

While the plastics probably used in the casings are relatively inert and stable, there is one caveat. The wire sheaths inside the consoles may be composed with PVC plastic, one of the ‘problem’ plastics as defined by the Plastics Historical Society. PVC is designed to be more flexible and, as a result, is less stable and, overtime, may off gas some harmful chemicals. Although the GCI notes that little scientific investigation has been done, one could add an adsorber, like activated carbon, to the storage container/bag to adsorb volatile and/or toxic gases. pH indicators can be placed in the storage container to check for the presence of harmful acidic gases.

Ageless oxygen scavengers could also be added to storage to provide an oxygen free(-ish) environment or perhaps silica packets to adsorb water, formaldehyde, and acetic acid. If used, these adsorbers would need to be replaced on a consistent basis.

In the end, sometimes doing nothing is the best chance for doing no harm. Blessed are those consoles in their original packaging!


Plastics: Identification

In my last post, I addressed the seeming lack of literature that speaks to the preservation of video game hardware. But not all is lost! A second topic of the literature review is an investigation of the materials which make up the hardware, namely the plastics.

The first component of the preservation of plastics is the identification of the specific plastic that comprises the casing of the console. Certain plastics can be more ‘problematic’ than others and require different preservation and conservation methods. My first suggestion is to examine the console thoroughly and see if any identifying marks are visible. If a visual inspection is inconclusive, I was able to find two resources that might help us in the identification process.

The first resource, the Plastics Historical Society, was identified by Matt in his March post and comes to us through Tulane University Libraries. Among other resources, the Society provides a table that correlates dates of manufacture with probable plastics used in the manufacturing process. Our test collection, the Billy Cain Collection, contains consoles that range from the 2nd to the 6th generations of video games (around 1976 to 2005). Our collection’s hardware likely falls entirely within the category “1965 Onwards” in the table provided by the Plastics Historical Society. This category mentions 12 different types of plastic commonly used. Another resource I located allows even further refinement.

Vintage Computing and Gaming, founded in 2005 and written by Benj Edwards, is a “blog about computer, video game, and technology history.” On January 7th, 2007, Mr. Edwards published a great post titled “Why Super Nintendos Lose Their Color: Plastic Discoloration in Classic Machines.” During his investigation, Mr. Edwards reached out to a plastics expert at the University of Massachusetts, the late Dr. Rudolph D. Deanin, who said this: “The plastics most commonly used to make the structural cases for electronic equipment are polypropylene, impact styrene, and ABS [acrylonitrile butadiene styrene].” Each of these three plastics are indeed among the 12 listed by the Plastics Historical Society. This purported commonality among console casings is fortunate because institutions with consoles from multiple decades can likely store the collections together in the same environment.

Now I know what you are asking: What if I really really want to know the identity of a particular plastic in my collection? Is there a way to identify the plastic without harming the artifact? Why, yes, yes there is. And this allows me to introduce my greatest find during the entire literature review: POPART – Preservation of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections.


This project was initiated in 2008 by the European Commission to develop a strategy for the preventive conservation and maintenance of modern material artefacts and most of their results were published in 2012. This is a fabulous resource for any cultural heritage institution that has plastic objects in its collections and I enthusiastically recommend investigating their site and resources. One priority for the group was finding techniques for the non-destructive identification/characterization of plastics.

One such technique is near-infrared (NIR) Spectroscopy, a spectroscopic method that uses the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to measure the absorption of materials. The resultant absorption spectra depend on the chemical composition of the samples. By comparing to a database of characterized materials, it is possible to identify positively the components in the hardware casing. Or at least have a really good guess!

Please check back next time for more on the preservation of plastics!